Williams’ Injury Forced Buckeyes to Reshuffle Defense
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Long before the 2011 seasons ever kicked off, the Buckeyes knew they were going to be missing some key veterans early in the season.
Seniors Mike Adams, DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and Solomon Thomas were all slated to miss the first five games of the year, and they were eventually joined for the first two by Travis Howard, Jordan Hall and Corey Brown.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Yet the one player missing from Ohio State’s lineup on Saturday that may have left the biggest hole—at least on defense—is senior defensive end Nathan Williams.
“Any time you lose somebody who can get pressure off the edge and make a couple guys block him and then you’ve got some other guys on the other edge, it set us back a little bit,” OSU Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock said.
Williams started the opener against Akron but injured his knee during Ohio State’s 42-0 win over the Zips. He was not dressed the following week against Toledo, but it wasn’t until after that game in week two that Williams and the staff decided his injury would require surgery.
It was a big blow for an Ohio State defense that was already attempting to replace seven starters from last season.
“There’s no question,” Heacock said.
“When you lose a player of that caliber, and probably the most productive guy we had back from making plays on Saturday in the past. Any time you take somebody like that out of your mix, it definitely hurts you.”
It hurts because Williams was one of only three seniors on the defense—Andrew Sweat and Tyler Moeller being the other two. He led the team in sacks a year ago and was third in tackles for loss behind Cam Heyward and Brian Rolle.
Most importantly, Williams plays the Leo position, which is a fairly complex hybrid between an outside linebacker and a defensive end in Ohio State’s system.
“We also had a little bit of a plan for him to use him as a Sam backer in base defense,” Heacock said.
“He really bought into that and was looking good that.”
In other words, Williams was going to be one of, if not the most important player on Ohio State’s defense this fall. His teammates said he is the kind of player who could line up at nose tackle or even strong safety if they needed help at those positions.
They don’t, but with his injury and the suspension to Thomas, the Buckeyes have had to reshuffle the deck a little bit up front defensively.
“We’ve got two freshmen in there who are battling and doing a good job,” Heacock said.
“I think J.T. (Moore) is getting better and I think Steve Miller has had a great week of practice and you’ll probably see more and more of him. Of course John Simon is just a warrior and we asked him to go out there play that position because we need some experience and we need somebody out there that knows what he’s doing to take the heat of these two freshmen.”
A 6-2, 270-pound junior out of Youngstown Cardinal Mooney, Simon played defensive tackle last season for the Buckeyes. He moved outside to strongside end during the off-season to help offset the loss of Cam Heyward—arguably Ohio State’s best player last season.
His skills are not exactly tailored to the Leo spot, which has been played by guys like Vernon Gholston and Thad Gibson in the past. It involves a lot of pass rushing, which Simon has proven to be quite good at, but also a fair amount of dropping back into coverage.
“Like Johnny always does, he goes out there and plays unbelievable and is doing a good job there,” Heacock said.
“The quicker we can bring those young guys a long, the more we can send him back down inside and do what he likes to do and what he does best.”
Ideally, the Buckeyes would rather just get Williams back in the mix. He has missed the last three games because of the injury, but won’t be available again this week against Michigan State.
The way Fickell was talking this week, it doesn’t sound like they are close to getting him back, but Heacock hasn’t heard anything that would make him believe Williams won’t be back out there at some point this year.
“I really haven’t had any concern and haven’t heard any reason why I should,” he said Wednesday.
“But I haven’t heard exactly what’s going on.”
The OSU defense should get a boost next week with the return of Solomon Thomas, who before Williams’ injury was largely considered an afterthought in the suspensions of Herron, Posey and Adams.
Thomas is returning from off-season knee surgery, but the last time we saw him, he was saving the day with a last-minute interception of Ryan Mallett in the Sugar Bowl.
At 6-5, 255, Thomas should bring more of a pass-rushing presence to the defensive line. He also brings the experience of having played the Leo position for the past three years, but the Buckeyes know they still need the younger guys to come along.
“We have to continue to develop some depth up front and at the linebacker spot,” Heacock said.
“It’s a work in progress. I think we have made progress. I feel like we’re getting better and better, but I think we would all agree that we have to continue to improve as the season goes along.”
The regular season is already one-third over, which means they better improve in a hurry if they’re going to compete for another Big Ten championship.
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