We continue our look inside the cupboard of the 2009 Ohio State squad in an effort to determine positions of strength and others that need a little work. 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.
The Ohio State defense continues to be the flag bearer for the program and no portion better illustrates that prominence than the defensive backfield. Ohio State produces an unusually high number of cornerbacks for the NFL. That surplus began with Shawn Springs and has continues with Antoine Winfield, Nate Clements, Chris Gamble, and Malcolm Jenkins to name a few. So, Buckeyes' fans should feel no angst when looking at the secondary depth chart, right?
Coming & Goings: Defensive backfields do not lose Malcolm Jenkins and get better. It does not help that Donald Washington, the tremendously talented albeit slightly troublesome reserve CB, bolted for the NFL with a year of eligibility left. But the rest of the last line of defense returns for 2009 with the entire two-deep back at the safety positions. A big positive there. And, for the first time in a while, Ohio State brought in some very highly regarded secondary players - C.J. Barnett and Corey Brown are very nice CB prospects and Jamie Wood is highly-rated safety (both Barnett and Wood enrolled early). The interesting part is that big name recruits have not been part of Ohio State's success at those positions. The last highly regarded defensive back for OSU played wide receiver. It will be interesting to see what happens with top talent coming in.
As many of you read last season, I was annoyed with the play of the safeties (last bullet point) long before Texas' final offensive play. It was one more reason that Washington's lack of playing time was increasing frustrating for me as the season wore on. I was please with Hines play most of the time but I could not figure out why they needed 3 safeties in the game when none of them can cover a receiver.
Hitting the High Notes: The best part of the secondary is Chekwa returns and provides good stability at cover for the Buckeyes. He may not be Jenkins and I do have some concerns that he can be a true No. 1 CB, but he will allow the Buckeyes to be somewhat flexible on defense. The high notes necessarily have to include the experience factor of this group, especially at safety with all four major contributors back. I cannot say I this is the best safety corp the Buckeyes have had in a while but they should all know their assignments and can minimize big plays even if they are not coming up with big plays of their own.
Problem Spots: Who is the other cornerback? Andre Amos? Travis Howard? One of the true freshmen? This is a problem. Amos had loads of talent coming out of high school and if he can stay healthy there is a good chance that he can fill the void on the other side of Chekwa. But it is a "believe when I see it" situation. The other problem I see is one that does not manifest itself on a weekly basis but when it does rear its head the results are ugly: the Nickel package.
The Buckeyes Nickel tends to focus more on spread offenses that emphasize the run and short passes. That is understandable since that is the type of offense they see most frequently. But when they play a team that can spread it out and throw down field the lack of a third cover man is really glaring. USC and Texas picked that pass defense apart going 58-86 (68-percent) for 600 yards. With the departure of Jenkins and Washington, the defensive backfield is fighting an uphill battle to cover multiple receivers. We will learn about their progress early on. USC may have a new quarterback but they had that last season, and Aaron Corp has the benefit of tons of talent returning at WR.
Smart Money: This unit is going to look a lot like last year's, minus its playmaker. Normally, three returning starters ensures progress and improvement but that will only happen if the coaching staff is able to find a good to great replacement for Jenkins. Amos is going to get the first shot and barring injury I cannot imagine he will not start the season as the second corner. But he will be pushed. If not by Devon Torrence or Travis Howard, then by Barnett and/or Brown. The development at that position may mean to the 2009 defense than any other.
Best Case Scenario: Amos regains his highly-touted prep form and performs above all expectations. As excited as I am to see the freshmen DBs, I am not itching to one of them line up across from Williams, Ausberry, and Johnson on September 12. But it is imperative one of the younger guys develops into a reliable third cover for the Nickel and for 2010. If Chekwa chooses to turn pro after this season the Buckeyes will be replacing the entire secondary.
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