We continue our look inside the cupboard of the 2009 Ohio State squad in an effort to determine if our position is a buy, sell, or hold. We will take a look at these units again after spring and fall practice, but right now this constitutes our best guess as to what will follow.
Considering many projected the team to win all it's games, including the high-profile blowout in Los Angeles, it was easy to overlook the Buckeyes' defense last season. To do so, however, would be to overlook a Top-15 defense.
This is an even greater accomplishment when you consider that they accumulated that ranking while playing 4 Top-20 offenses. (A feat I am willing to bet was not duplicated by any other team.)
Naturally, it is impossible to have any hope that the 2009 defense can replicate it's immediate predecessor, but that may be short-sighted for a couple of reasons:
(1) Ohio State always reloads on defense. Care to recall the last time they were ranked outside the Top-15? That would be 2004. And, before that? I could not research back that far.
(2) For the first time in a long time (2003?) the defensive line is the strength of this side of the ball.
Coming & Goings
Nader Abdallah played well down the stretch last season, so his loss should not be glossed over, but the rest of the defensive line rotation returns and will receive an infusion of youth.
The interesting, and positive part of the defensive line analysis is that more than a few players can play across the line. Cameron Heyward and Robert Rose can play inside or out, and Gibson can assume a two-point stance from time-to-time in special alignments.
Specifically, at defensive end, the Buckeyes have Gibson on one side, with a litany of options on the other. On paper, it seems likely that Heyward would be listed as the other DE starter, but I like him more inside.
That leaves Nathan Williams, who played a lot during the second half of the year, and Lawrence Wilson as the likely candidates.
Wilson could either provide a tremendous boost to the defensive line, if he can buck the odds and return to form, or he will be one of the top situational reserves in any front four in the countr; because of his absence other players have developed and Wilson now qualifies as a defensive luxury.
Hitting the high notes
Depth, experience and versatility.
The Buckeyes return eight players with 43 starts under their belts. In addition to Heyward at tackle, Dexter Larimore, Doug Worthington and Todd Denlinger are nice players to have in the rotation; though none of the three has the athleticism of Heyward (which is one of the main reasons I think Heyward will play inside).
After that trio, options for the Buckeyes are redshirt freshman Garrett Goebel, and true freshman Johnny Simon. Finally, there is Rob Rose. Much like Heyward, I think of him as a guy who can play tackle and end, and whose athleticism creates problems at tackle.
Because of the log jam at tackle, I tend to think he will see more time at end this season.
There is no double-team demanding presence...at the moment. Two years ago Vernon Gholston made every player on the line better, despite Lawrence Wilson's opening game leg break.
In 2008, and as we head towards 2009, there still does not seem to be that player. Gibson showed flashes of brilliance against Texas, and I thought Heyward was going to be a superstar after his freshman campaign, but I do not think the Buckeyes have a dominant defensive line player right now.
That may be offset by the above-mentioned depth, experience and versatility, but it would be a tremendous boost to the front four if Gibson, or Heyward, made great strides this offseason and became that unstoppable force.
This is a strong area for the Buckeyes. This unit is the early leader for anchor of the defense. There are a lot of options for Heacock and company, and fans have serious reasons to believe the line can provide a level of play that will give the rest of the defense room to grow.
Best case scenario
As far as the actual starters are concerned, I am not sure the order matters. I consider Gibson and Heyward to be the only definite starters, and the rest depends and opposing schemes.
Against power teams, Williams may not see much playing time, with Heyward likely moving to end. Against spread teams, Heyward and Rose could make a problematic tackle combination with Gibson, Williams and Wilson playing edge rushers.