So what about the defense?
There’s been no shortage of discussion about the new offense Urban Meyer spent spring installing at Ohio State. That’s the name brand product. It’s the sexy new thing. It’s only natural that would dominate the headlines.
Defense, however, has been what Ohio State has hung its hat on for much of the past decade.
And, by the way, that defense was pretty bad at times last year. It almost went unnoticed because of the handwringing about the offense that gave way almost immediately to euphoria about the new scheme Meyer would bring in, but there were times injuries and youth reduced the 2011 Buckeye stop troops to near helplessness.
Now most of that group is back, for better or for worse, so what did we see in spring to make us think it will be better?
Well there were the more svelte bodies, for one. John Simon went from ripped to super ripped, inspiring second thoughts about the idea he is not quite suited to play the standup Leo rush end position. Johnathan Hankins came back having dropped a few more pounds, too, meaning he should be able to go strong for longer periods of time.
Having the two best players from last season in better shape seems to be a good starting point, but are there pieces available to supplement what they can do well?
That remains to be seen.
The line wasn’t bad last season, but it was somewhat limited by lack of athleticism. There were four stout starters, but only Simon had the quickness to scare opposing pass protectors. He looked even better in the spring, but the jury is still out on the issue of finding him help.
Steve Miller showed some potential in his first spring in the program. He bulked up a bit and seems to have the ability to get around the edge, but he is still raw when it comes to moves. He will need to keep getting stronger and to supplement his quickness with some kind of counter to keep offensive linemen from cheating outside on him.
Michael Bennett, another sophomore like Miller, also had a strong spring as the new strong side defensive end. He replaced Adam Bellamy, a very solid contributor last season, and I think he can be a more disruptive force because of his long arms and greater quickness. Bellamy is tenacious and tough and should remain a guy worthy of playing time, but Bennett has a lot of upside.
The new starter might be more suited to the 3-technique than the 5 where they had him in the spring, however, and just maybe he’ll end up there depending on how everything else shakes out. Garrett Goebel returns at nose guard with Hankins at the 3-technique, but I still think the best lineup slides Goebel to reserve status with Hankins anchoring the middle and Bennett holding down a guard-tackle gap. That would coincided with moving Simon back on the strong side with someone new – such as Miller – at Leo. Of course that Leo could be someone old, too, depending on the status of Nathan Williams, a senior who missed spring ball while recovering from significant knee surgery. He was the best outside rusher on the team before he got hurt, but what he’ll be able to do (and when) this fall remains to be seen. Help could also come from a group of freshmen comprised of Se’Von Pittman (who was here in spring but also slowed by a knee problem), Noah Spence or Adolphus Washington. Pittman and Washington could both start on the weak side before growing into strong-side (5-technique) guys while Spence is considered a pure speed pass rusher.
Chase Farris and Joel Hale both had some nice moments with the second team and seem like potential depth guys now with bigger roles in the future, but they will face heavy competition from the waves of defensive linemen Meyer has recruited in the past six months. The same is true of J.T. Moore, a sophomore who competed with Miller for playing time at Leo but failed to make an impact last season or in spring ball. He may be better suited for the other end spot as well.
At linebacker, there was good news and bad.
On the plus side, Ryan Shazier left no doubt he took advantage of his second winter in a college weight room. Noticeably thicker in his upper body, he did not appear to lose any quickness despite gaining 16 pounds (the cowboy collar under his jersey was a nice addition, too, at least as far as intimidating aesthetics go). I thought he played faster, too, letting his instincts blend with the experience gleaned from playing significant minutes late last season. He seemed locked in from day one and took a more vocal role on the defense.
Etienne Sabino was in a bit of a new role playing over a slot man instead of a tight end, but he seemed comfortable doing so. He didn’t do a lot to stand out, but he held his own in space.
The early returns were encouraging with Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but his spring was abbreviated by a stinger. Before that, he played more loose and gave a hint to why he was so highly recruited. A big guy who runs smoothly, he is a big hitter once he figures out where he’s going.
Storm Klein is a bit of a wild card heading into his senior season. Injuries continued to be a problem for him, and his limitations outside the box figure to give Grant the inside track to winning the starting role this fall. Meyer spoke of Grant as one of the key figures on the defense.
On the bright side, youngsters Connor Crowell and Luke Roberts held their own both with the second team and in some surprising first-team reps necessitated by injuries to veterans. This is another position that will get needed reinforcements when the recruiting class arrives this summer.
Josh Perry, an early enrolling freshman like Roberts, showed flashes of the athleticism that earned him one of the first offers of the 2012 class but was slowed by injury for much of the spring.
The secondary remains a work in progress, and it should be interesting to see how the tweak in coverage style affects the group. From day one, it was noticeable that the corners and safeties both were driving hard on patterns, getting their hands on balls and making things happen. That is what the move to “off’ coverage was designed to do, let them drop, read the play and react. The corners played with some feistiness, too, no doubt derived from fiery new position coach Kerry Coombs. Bradly Roby continues to look like a star in the making, and Travis Howard appears more coverage in the new cover scheme.
Doran Grant is a good athlete with some physicality to him as the No. 3 guy, and Adam Griffin had a surprising impact as he rose up to snatch the second back-up corner spot. He passed true freshman Tyvis Powell, who is a big, impressive looking physical specimen who is probably better suited to play safety.
Safety was plagued by injury as well, so It was hard to get a good gauge of what progress was made. Here the style was tweaked a bit, too, with a strong safety regularly playing in the box.
Quite frankly, it’s tough to tell much about safety play in the practice setting unless someone is knocking heads all the time or clearly getting burned. They weren’t live tackling on a regular basis, either, so it remains to be seen if that area will be improved from last season.
As far as athletic ability, the Buckeyes have plenty to burn in C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant with Orhian Johnson looking like he continued to build on the progress he made as last season wore on. Corey Brown also received some starter reps when Barnett and Bryant went down with injury and looked solid. Ron Tanner offers potential for the future.Follow @marcushartman