Big Ten Breakdown: Ohio State Buckeyes, Part 2 (Defense and Specialists)
In the first part of this series, I looked at Ohio State's offense, as well as the overall team outlook. In this part, I'll take a look at the defense, as well as the measurable parts of the special teams.
2010 scoring defense: 14.3 PPG (first in the conference); total defense: 261.9 YPG (first); rushing defense: 3.10 YPC (first); passing efficiency allowed: 98.58 (first).
Average scoring defense conference ranking over the last five years: 1.6.
Best scoring defense conference ranking over the last five years: first (2007 and 2010).
Worst scoring defense conference ranking over the last five years: second (2006, 2008 and 2009).
Returning starters: DE Nathan Williams, DL John Simon, LB Andrew Sweat, S Orhian Johnson.
Open positions: DE, DT, LB, CB, S.
Ohio State has been the defensive class of the Big Ten throughout the decade. Even in down seasons when they have returned few starters, they have been in the upper echelons of the conference.
Between 2001-2010, OSU has twice failed to be among the top two in conference scoring defense (2003, when they were fourth; 2004, when they were fifth). This success has been despite Tressel's offensive background and going through three different defensive coordinators.
During that time, 39 Buckeye defenders have been drafted into the NFL—10 in the first round. I have not crunched the numbers, but I'd be willing to bet that Ohio State has had the most defensive players drafted this decade, not only in the Big Ten, but also in the nation.
However, as with everything else about this team, that success came during the Jim Tressel era. Will that same unparalleled success continue without him?
It is impossible to say, but with only four returning starters, new head coach Luke Fickell will have his work cut out for him.
Presumably, Fickell will stay true to the same defensive philosophy that has brought Ohio State success.
They will begin with a base 4-3, but will sometimes stand a defensive end in a modified 3-4. They also regularly employ a 4-2-5, with the fifth defensive back being what the Buckeye coaches call a "star," which is a safety-linebacker hybrid. They will probably employ the star a lot this season, because that is one of the few positions in the back seven where they have experience.
Ohio State will use both man and zone. More specifically, if the overall Ohio State defense has been exceptional, the defensive backs have been out of this world. In effect, the OSU cornerbacks can typically cover any receiver.
The Bucks have not been aggressive blitzers, but their talent and speed allow them to blitz from any formation on any down.
According to The Ozone, "this might be the thinnest the Ohio State defensive line has been in years." This is not aided by the final suspension of tattoo-gate, reserve defensive end Solomon Thomas.
The end result of this is a defensive linemen-heavy 2011 recruiting class and a depth chart that will be littered with freshmen. As OSU likes to rotate its linemen, this could cause problems.
The likely starters are junior John Simon at strong-side end with senior Nathan Williams at the weak side. Sophomore, and 335-pound, Johnathan Hankins will play the nose, while junior Garrett Goebel or sophomore Adam Bellamy will be at defensive tackle.
Thomas, sophomore Melvin Fellows and redshirt freshman J.T. Moore will be a few of the key ends that vie for playing time. Meanwhile, the inside linemen will probably be senior utility man Evan Blankenship as well as a true freshman or two.
Simon is the best of the group. Last season, he played defensive tackle, where he might put in some time this season. Nonetheless, his main focus will be strong-side end. He will take over where Cam Heyward left off and only elite right tackles will have a chance of slowing him down. And even they might need help from a tight end.
Williams is a monster in the pass rush. Last season, he led the Buckeyes with 4.5 sacks. This season, he is expected to contribute even more. As with Simon, only elite left tackles are going to be able to beat Williams.
Hankins, Goebel and Bellamy are less known quantities than the ends. Up to this point in their careers, they have primarily seen spot time.
There is no question of their talents, but can they stand 50-60 downs per game? For that matter, as previously mentioned, the Ohio State line will probably be depending upon a number of young faces to spell the top players. This is something that has not happened for a while. Are they up to it?
Overall, the starting ends will be among the best in the conference. The starting defensive tackles will be solid at worst. The questions concern depth and how the starters hold up late in the game if the Bucks rotate less than they have in the past.
Andrew Sweat is Ohio State's lone returning starter at linebacker. He will move to the strong-side spot, which was formerly played by all-conference Ross Homan.
The other two spots will probably be played by either juniors Storm Klein or Etienne Sabino, or sixth-year senior Tyler Moeller.
Sweat went into 2010 behind Sabino as the favorite to win the third linebacker position, but in the end, he came out on top. He is arguably a better athlete than Homan and he is more comfortable at the strong side than last season's weak side.
Sabino took a redshirt year last season in order to fully learn the middle linebacker position. He is the most athletically gifted of the bunch. Now, he has to show he has the football smarts to play the position formerly manned by A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis and Brian Rolle. If he has gained said smarts, he could be the playmaker that OSU needs in its linebacking corps.
Klein is another talented backer that played mostly in garbage time last season. The thing is, when you're OSU, there is a decent amount of garbage time to go around. At the very least, enough to accumulate the second-most tackles of any non-starter. If Sabino doesn't fully grasp his responsibilities at MLB, Klein will.
Moeller is the most intriguing of the candidates. His career has been fraught with injuries, among other things, that have kept him from living up to his potential. He came into last year as the starting STAR, but a torn pectoral muscle ended his season early.
Having been granted a sixth year of eligibility, he has been rehabbing and could push for a linebacker position or the STAR, depending upon where he is physically. He is a bit small for a standard linebacker (currently listed as 6'0", 210 lbs.), but he is known for his activity level and hitting ability.
Either way, expect to see Moeller on the field. The question is where.
As with the defensive line, there are no questions concerning the starters. The issues concern depth. With Dorian Bell's suspension and Jonathan Newsome's transfer, odds are pretty good that Ohio State will have some true freshmen sprinkled into the depth chart.
In retrospect, given the depth issues, my Big Ten position group ranking might have been a tad generous. On the other hand, even without Tressel, Ohio State has a recent track record of extraordinary success on defense, and that has to be taken into account.
As previously noted, Ohio State's record with the secondary under Jim Tressel has been phenomenal. The Bucks have sent 14 defensive backs to the NFL draft over that time—three have gone in the first round.
It's one thing to recruit at a high level, but it's another to develop players.
However, as with everything else this season, Luke Fickell will have a lot of work ahead of him.
The Buckeyes graduated both of their starting cornerbacks, as well as two of the four safeties/stars to play significant minutes.
The first cornerback will be junior Travis Howard. During the second half of last season, he came on strong in pass-defense packages and subbing for an oft-injured Chimdi Chekwa.
He reputedly had a strong spring and he will look to be the next great Buckeye cornerback.
Clarke was thrown into action in last season's Sugar Bowl, following a wrist injury to Chekwa. He performed admirably against the seventh-ranked passing offense in the country. Clarke has to be considered the favorite to win the job, but Allen and Roby will have something to say about that.
At the beginning of 2010, C.J. Barnett won the starting strong safety spot. He then suffered a knee injury against Miami (Fl), which ended his season. He spent the last year rehabbing and he is ready to step back into a starting role. In all probability, Barnett will be the starting strong safety on September 3.
The one full-time starting defensive back that will return this season is junior Orhian Johnson. Johnson came to Ohio State as a quarterback and was still learning the safety position when he was thrust into a starting role last season. He improved as the season progressed and he will have the inside track at starting free safety.
Other safeties that will vie for playing time include sophomores Corey Brown, Christian Bryant and Jamie Wood, along with a number of freshmen.
Bryant is the most intriguing of the backups. He came to OSU as a cornerback, but the coaches wanted to get him on the field. They moved him, as there were more opportunities at safety. Now, Bryant is pushing hard for either a safety or the star position.
As for the star, it could be Moeller, if he doesn't make a full-time move to linebacker. Or, the coaches could go a different direction than they have in the past by putting Bryant—who is more of a pass defender than a small linebacker—in there.
In closing, there is, as usual, tons of talent in the Buckeye backfield. If Tressel were still the coach, I'd be more willing to give the secondary the benefit of the doubt. As things stand, this bunch will have to prove itself.
Place kicker Devin Barclay has graduated, but sophomore Drew Basil will take his place.
Last season, Basil handled kickoffs and long field goals. He went 0-for-2 on field goals, with both of them over 50 yards and both of them blocked.
Assuming Basil can get his kicks up, he may not manage Barclay's 20-for-24, but he should be acceptable.
The punter is junior Ben Buchanan. Last season, he had 42 punts and averaged 41.02 per punt—good enough for eighth in the Big Ten. That is not bad, but improvement would help out the defense tremendously.
Both the primary punt and kickoff returners are back.
Former running back, now receiver, Jordan Hall handled punts to the tune of 9.92 yards per return. Hall was second in the conference of those that qualified. Another option is Corey "Philly" Brown, who had four returns last season.
The kickoff returner is Hall or running back Jaamal Berry. Hall came in second in the conference with a 27.94 average and one touchdown while Berry was fifth with 25.43.
Hall will probably get the start, at least at the beginning of the season, as Berry might be too valuable until Herron gets back.
Overall, the kicker and punter should be steady at worst, while the return men will be explosive.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 3
Coming later this week, a look at the Buckeyes' schedule and a final breakdown.
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Michigan State Spartans.
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