Final Spring Thoughts on the Defense
By Tony Gerdeman
Now that we've made it through spring football, and the digestion period has passed, I'm ready to make some sweeping and definitive statements on the Buckeye defense.
Whether or not I end up being right is immaterial, unless I end up being right, then will most certainly point that out and brag shamelessly. Until then, I'm merely making some statements based on what I saw last month.
No Longer a Middling Linebacker
Photo by Jim Davidson
I'll admit that I've never really been on the Etienne Sabino bandwagon because I had never really seen him line up and play. Each year we would hear about the potential, but we never actually got to see it on the field. Last spring we heard how he was stepping up and playing well as the shoo-in starter at SAM linebacker. Then Andrew Sweat got healthy, came from about fifteen lengths back, blew past him, stole the job out from under his facemask, and got him redshirted.
Sabino came to Ohio State as a five-star linebacker out of Miami, and the pyroclastic waves of his superstar expectations reached Columbus way before he ever did. What we all apparently failed to realize, however, is that some players take a little longer to show that they're ready than others.
When Sabino finally arrived in 2008, the Buckeye trio of linebackers was James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Ross Homan. Those are three great players to learn from, but unfortunate players to get stuck behind as each of the three were three-year starters at Ohio State.
In 2009, senior Austin Spitler was slated to be the starter at middle linebacker, then in 2010 the job would likely be Sabino's. Unfortunately, Spitler was injured in preseason practices and Sabino wasn't yet ready to step up. Brian Rolle took the job and ran with it for two years.
Now in 2011, with a 2010 redshirt year behind him, Sabino is saying and doing all of the right things, but he's still never shown that anticipated ability on the field. Each year he was behind somebody new, and each year he couldn't make it past that somebody in order to see significant minutes, but I think that's about to change in a big way in 2011.
For starters (pun intended), he's never not been the #1 middle linebacker this spring, and from what I've seen, he's never looked like he didn't belong. I happen to think Storm Klein has a ton of ability, and if I thought he should be ahead of Sabino, I'd have no problem saying so, but right now it's clearly Sabino's job unless something drastic happens.
The word has always been that Sabino's head needed to catch up with his abilities, and early indications are that that is exactly what has happened. but until we see it on the field he's still going to have his doubters.
I just don't think I'm going to be one of them.
Full Frontal Rudity
Photo by Dan Harker
You can't lose a first-round draft pick like Cameron Heyward and expect to be better the following year. Losing a stalwart like Dexter Larimore doesn't help either. However, the Buckeye defensive line is coming off of their worst sack numbers (16) since they recorded just 14.5 in 2004.
There's more to a defensive line than just sacks. The 2010 defense gave up 96.7 yards per game rushing, which is a middle-of-the-road number for an Ohio State defense. Looking at the past seven seasons, it's the fourth-best number they put up.
Still, "middle-of-the-road" for Ohio State is like the HOV lane for most other teams in the nation.
Looking at the sack numbers, regardless of who is gone, it's hard to imagine that this Buckeye defensive line would produce numbers that would equate to an eight-year low.
Sure, in any eight-year period, somebody is going to have to be the worst, but I just don't see it out of this group.
For one, there's plenty of talent returning. John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel, Nathan Williams and Adam Bellamy will provide a versatile front line that will constantly be moving around.
From down to down, they will rotate in and out be lining up in different spots. Nathan Williams, meanwhile, will simply prowl around looking for weak spots to exploit.
But it may not be the defensive line that dictates the numbers as much as the opponents they'll face. Last year, offenses wanted their quarterbacks to get rid of the football as quickly as possible against Ohio State. This led to a low number of sacks, despite consistent pressure.
This year, however, teams may be willing to have their quarterback hold the ball a little longer in order to attack a relatively new secondary.
With an Ohio State offense that may never end up clicking, opponents can take a few more chances than last year, because they'll assume the Buckeyes won't be able to capitalize on mistakes at their usual pace.
So, against teams that may feel a little bit more comfortable than usual, the Buckeyes may have more opportunities to make plays in the backfield. Because of this, and an outstanding defensive line, their sack numbers should actually be better than last year.
Whether the run defense will improve or not is probably a better question, but that one's too easy to get wrong, so I avoided it.
The Strong Side is Gone
Remember in the past when the Ohio State coaches would look for the three best linebackers and then fit them into the three linebacker spots?
Well I don't think that exists this season.
All spring (prior to Dorian Bell's suspension), Bell and Storm Klein were backing up Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino, while a assemblage of Tony Jackson, Chad Hagan and Ryan Shazier manned the strongside linebacker spot.
It was clear that Sweat, Sabino, Klein and Bell were the four "top" linebackers, but neither Bell or Klein were really in the mix at the strongside.
Why? Two words: Tyler Moeller.
Photo by Jim Davidsion
It's clear that once he is healthy - which he is expected to be - he will be playing as many snaps as his body will allow. He will not be a "nickel back", he will be an every down player because this defense is better when he is on the field.
His presence alone will make the defense more disruptive. His abilities will make them more versatile, and his attitude will be contagious.
There was no need to move Klein or Bell to the strongside, because they can't do what the coaches intend to be done at that position.
When guys like Hagan, Shazier and Christian Bryant get looks there, it gives you an idea of what the coaches think of them as well.
This is Moeller's last go-round. Expect him to give everything he has for his teammates, and expect the coaches to utilize every last second of it.
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