The NFL may leave you hanging for another week, but the Ohio State Buckeyes and their NCAA brethren have you covered.
Last season was the Year of the Offense for Ohio State. Braxton Miller, Carlos Hyde and company ran roughshod through the regular season behind a veteran offensive line led by two presumptive NFL opening day starters in center Corey Linsley (Green Bay) and tackle Jack Mewhort (who looks to be a likely starter at guard for the Colts) to the tune of over 48 points per game. Questionable play calling against Michigan State aside1, the offense was not a problem.
The defense was a different story. Being powerless against Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, and an explosive Clemson offense in the Orange Bowl is disappointing but somewhat defensible, but the Buckeye defense under Luke Fickell and Everett Withers also allowed noted offensive juggernauts Cal, Northwestern, Illinois, and Michigan to hang at least 30 points on the board. For a team with legitimate dreams of a national championship, especially one like Ohio State with a history of hard-nosed, punishing defenses, the performance was simply not good enough.
So what’s new this year to suggest the defense will be somewhat less porous than USC cornerback Josh Shaw’s cover story? I’m glad you asked.
First off, there were changes at the top, but not the one that many Buckeyes fans were calling for during the defensive debacle of last season. While Luke Fickell took the brunt of the hate last season, he managed to survive and retain his job. Withers is gone after taking the head-coaching job at James Madison. Replacing him is Chris Ash, who for the last four years has served under Bret Bielema at both Wisconsin as Arizona as defensive backs coach and then defensive coordinator. He will serve as co-defensive coordinator with the much-maligned Fickell while also taking charge of the safety group.
The safety group that Ash inherits coupled with Kerry Coombs’s cornerbacks combined to make opposing aerial attacks from the historically grounded Big Ten look like a vintage Mike Leach offense. Gone is Bradley Roby, the secondary’s most consistent performer and an NFL first-round pick. Top safety C.J. Barnett is also gone, although he missed most of last season with an ankle injury. Tyvis Powell, who played primarily as in nickel situations last season but made one of the most memorable plays of the year when he broke up Michigan’s two point conversion attempt to seal the victory and perfect regular season, will step in and provide immediate experience at one of the safety spots. The other safety spot remains unsettled, as the Buckeyes’ first depth chart, released Wednesday, lists Cam Burrows, who played 2013 at cornerback, or Vonn Bell, who fans will remember for his highlight reel interception in the Orange Bowl, as the starter. Expect to see the two of them both get plenty of time against Navy on Saturday.
A similar situation exists at cornerback, where redshirt freshmen Gareon Conley (the top-ranked player in Ohio his senior year) and Eli Apple (a five-star recruit) will battle for the starting role. Doran Grant, the only returning starter at defensive back, will play on the other side. Armani Reeves, who was about as useful as a swinging door in his time last season, is listed as the starting nickelback and Grant’s backup at corner. Overall, the secondary loses star power and leadership in Roby and Barnett, but, if the experienced Grant and Powell can help the development of promising youngsters Bell, Conley, and Apple, the unit could be better top to bottom.
For a school that ESPN declared Defensive Back U for the 2000s in their Position U series, major improvement is needed to get this defense back to the summit of the sport.
In that same series, ESPN also chose the Buckeyes as Linebacker U. And similar to the secondary, Ohio State’s linebackers underwhelmed last season. Ryan Shazier was a stud, but he’s gone, having been drafted in the first round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The defense actually returns two of last season’s starters in senior Curtis Grant and junior Josh Perry, but both of them will need much better performances if the Buckeyes are to compete for a conference title and playoff spot this season. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee replaces Shazier at Sam linebacker. He played six plays in two games last season before being hurt and taking a medical redshirt. Another redshirt freshman, converted safety Chris Worley, will push Lee for playing time on the strong side. Two highly touted true freshmen will backup the other two positions. Dante Booker, Ohio Mr. Football 2013, is Perry’s backup on the weak side, while Raekwon McMillan, the top-rated inside linebacker in last year’s senior class, is listed behind Grant in the middle. If either of the veterans falter as they did last year, expect to see the youngsters thrown into the fire, leaving the linebacking corps seriously devoid of experience.
And that finally brings the discussion to the unequivocal bastion of this year’s Buckeye defense. The defensive line returns four starters from last season in ends Joey Bosa and Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett at the tackle spots. The back-flipping Bosa is the star of the group. After a promising freshman performance, the Florida native was picked as a second team preseason All-American by USA TODAY. Opposite him is Spence, a 2013 media pick for first team All-Big Ten. Unfortunately, he will miss the first two games of the season as the result of a failed drug test that also resulted in him missing the Orange Bowl. Steve Miller will start the season in Spence’s stead. A three-year letterman, Miller should be a solid replacement while Spence remains ineligible. Inside, Washington is currently an unquestioned starter. Surprisingly, Bennett, who had a stellar 2013 with 7.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss, was listed alongside junior Tommy Schutt. Rotation options at defensive tackle are essential for keeping everyone fresh, but it was still somewhat of a shock to see Washington’s spot secured while Bennett’s is not.
The Ohio State defense was the team’s unquestioned weak link last season. With a more stingy unit, the Buckeyes and their high-powered offense likely would have beaten Michigan State to win the Big Ten and played Florida State for the BCS Championship. Questions remain for the defense this year, but if a number of young players can live up to their potential, this unit should be much improved from the sieve that was last year’s unit.
- Hey Urban, give the ball to Hyde! [↩]