After taking a step back last season, the defensive line looks primed to more resemble the killer unit that coordinator and line coach Jim Heacock fielded in 2009.
Senior Nathan Williams is a multifaceted weapon at Leo who can also fill the “Viper” position in the 3-3-5 look that sometimes replaces the nickel, and redshirt freshman J.T. Moore is coming strong behind him.
Johnathan Hankins spent pretty much all his time that reporters could watch at 3- or 5-technique as opposed to nose guard, where most expected him to set up shop. Know what that means? The coaches see a lot of potential in him and want to make sure some of it is not wasted in the middle. Seeing the 325-pounder lined up on an offensive tackle’s outsides shoulder is a bit strange at first, but this guy is a playmaker.
I’m looking for John Simon to make more plays this year, too. Expectations have been high for him since early in his high school career at Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, and they are probably fair. I was a bit disappointed in him last year in that I don’t think he had as good a season as predecessor Doug Worthington. Simon’s more athletic but smaller than Worthington, and I thought he did not wreak enough havoc last season to make up for the way Worthington anchored his spot the year and let others flow to the ball in 2009. They are not the same type of player and thus should not be asked to do the same things, but I felt Worthington performed better in his role in 2009 than Simon did in his own in 2010. (For more on this, see the linebackers)
Yet Simon is a workaholic and might have added a gear this year, a scary thought for opposing offenses. If that is the case, he can play outside more and be a viable pass rusher.
With Hankins and Simon playing 3- and 5-technique, Garrett Goebel worked hard to mess things up for the offense in the middle. The junior is a natural to take over for Dexter Larimore at nose guard. Both are former champion wrestlers in high school, so knowledge of leverage is a given. Goebel’s teammates and insiders have been raving about him for two years, and it appears time for him to make an impact in games.
Should any of those starters falter, there was a lot to like about their backups this spring (and Heacock wants to go at least eight deep, so there should be plenty of game reps to go around, too).
Adam Bellamy caught my eye the most. He may not be a physical freak, but he can grind and get into the backfield. The same is true of Darryl Baldwin, still a baby after redshirting during his freshman campaign last season but looking like someone who can help down the line.
Now, if it’s plays you want, Melvin Fellows appears to be the guy. Finally healthy, at least for the first half of spring, Fellows flashed jaw-dropping ability. I always thought he looked awfully small for a defensive lineman when he roamed the sidelines as a recruit, but what I saw this spring was a huge frame and a guy moving with frightening quickness in all directions. If he can put it together (and keep it together) this fall, watch out. He might be the most explosive lineman aside from Williams.
One of the spring’s biggest surprises of the spring was Evan Blankenship, who might have put himself in position to earn some time behind Goebel at nose guard. Long ago written out of the conversation on the offensive line, Blankenship showed out a couple of times in drills.
The latter is also true of Joel Hale, although the 305-pound freshman is at the other end of the experience spectrum and may be just scratching the surface of what he can do…
At linebacker, Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino are both strong guys who can really run and deliver a blow. Both are good athletes and should have no problem in pass coverage or against the run.
Dorian Bell looked ready to blossom as he harnessed his aggression into positive football play, but his work is all for naught thanks to a season-long suspension. How much of a blow that turns out to be for the defense probably will be determined by the health of Sweat, Sabino and Tyler Moeller (more on him later).
Bell might have been the third linebacker, but it was tough to tell with Storm Klein often on the sidelines battling a hamstring issue and Jonathan Newsome off trying to convince Jim Tressel he can mind his Ps and Qs long enough to be trusted with playing time.
Somewhat forgotten last year, Jordan Whiting made notable strides this spring, including a seven-tackle, one-sack performance in the spring game. He is suspended for the opener, but he might be a better option than he looked like this time in 2010.
True freshman Ryan Shazier also fought the injury bug, but he offers an intriguing combination of size and athleticism. He might have the chops to be the answer at Sam linebacker thanks to his experience as a high school defensive end, but he has a long way to go…
Cornerback was perhaps the most revelatory position this spring as Travis Howard, Dominic Clarke, Dionte Allen and Bradley Roby all proved themselves worthy of claiming one of the two open starting spots.
Howard presumably has one all but locked up as he was the No. 3 guy last year and played well in the role, but Roby might have had the best spring. He made the most plays during open scrimmages, and his teammates say he has great instincts for man coverage. Clarke and Allen are both physical players who are not afraid to fly around, perhaps reminiscent of the style of cornerback often seen around these parts in the late 1990s under Fred Pagac Sr. and Jon Tenuta.
(Could a different type of player result in a different style of defense? I doubt it, but I thought I’d throw it out there just to get your hopes up)…
As good as the cornerback play seemed to be, we saw little progress at safety.
Orhian Johnson looked better as he played faster and limited mistakes, but he still took some poor routes to the ball and needs more work as a tackler.
Freshmen Ron Tanner and Jeremy Cash flashed some potential, but they are quite raw.
Pretty much everyone else was hurt for some or all of spring, although all are expected to be ready to go for preseason camp in August…
Finally, I saved the best for last: The Star position.
Holding the aforementioned Moeller out of contact obscured what the defense is likely to look like most of the time this fall (more on that in a future post), but it also opened the way for an intriguing prospect to step forward.
That would be Chad Hagan, a 225-pound redshirt freshman who did not practice last season because of a leg injury, played both Star and Sam linebacker and might be another of Tressel’s patented diamonds in the rough, this one a big guy who runs likes a safety and hits like a linebacker.
Safeties Nate Oliver and Christian Bryant (when healthy) also saw time at Star, as they have in the past.Follow @marcushartman