Heacock expects fun spring for defense

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Last updated: 03/29/2011 1:36 PM
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Heacock Expects Exciting Spring for Defense
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — With the turmoil surrounding Jim Tressel and six of his players, there aren’t many smiles around the Ohio State football program these days.

That should change Thursday, however, as the Buckeyes get back to what they know best: football.

No doubt, a dark cloud will continue to trail Tressel and his team throughout the spring and into the summer, but the practice field is a haven of safety; a fortress of tranquility. Out there, it is all football, and on the gridiron, Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock is expecting one of the best spring sessions in years.

“This is going to be a fun spring to me. These are the fun ones because you have no idea,” said the 62-yeard old, who has been a coach at Ohio State since 1996, five years before Tressel.

“The competition is going to be unbelievable. Nobody’s going to be able to coast through practice.”

The Buckeyes are coming off back-to-back top-5 defenses nationally, and have not been ranked outside the top 14 on that side of the ball since 2004. They were fifth in the country in scoring defense and fourth in total defense a year ago. Ohio State went 12-1 with a win over Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.

They were a senior-laden group on defense last year, which means a lot of new faces for Heacock this spring. That’s just the way he likes it.

“When you’ve got a bunch of seniors, they’re like ‘spring ball, eh.’ Now you’re going to have a bunch of guys out there who will be ready every day and it’s going to be competitive,” Heacock continued.

“I really enjoy this type of atmosphere. It’s going to be exciting.”

Among those Ohio State must replace on defense this spring are Cam Heyward and Dexter Larimore on the defensive line, linebackers Brian Rolle and Ross Homan and Chimdi Chekwa, Devon Torrence and Jermale Hines from the secondary.

That is a lot of talent and experience which helped carry the Buckeyes on defense in 2010. The Buckeyes must replace six of their top eight tackles, including the top four.  Heyward, Rolle and Homan were all captains for Ohio State last year, and Heacock knows he can’t expect to replace those guys over night.

“I think we start by trying to identify our best 11 players,” he said.

“Who are our football players, and really in the spring you’re trying to find your top 22 guys. You’re trying to find the guys you’re going to play and those are the guys you’re going to go to war with.”

Ohio State’s top returning tackler from a year ago is junior Orhian Johnson, who finished fifth on the team with 50 takedowns in 2010. Johnson took over for sophomore C.J. Barnett after he went down with a season-ending knee injury against Miami (Fla.) in week two.

Johnson and Barnett should be the leading candidates to lock down the starting safety spots this spring—especially now that Barnett is back on the field—but nothing is guaranteed, not even for Johnson, who started 11 games last season. Behind them is a solid group that includes senior Nate Oliver, junior Zach Domicone and redshirt sophomore Jamie Wood, who made our list of defensive players to watch this spring.

The Buckeyes will also be looking for a place to put sophomore Christian Bryant, who proved his worth as a defensive back in the win over Arkansas. The 5-foot-9 Bryant came to OSU as a corner out of Glenville, but ended up moving to Star (safety/corner hybrid) last season after Tyler Moeller went down with a torn pectoral.

Moeller was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, which means the Buckeyes will have to get creative if they want to get both Bryant and Moeller on the field at the same time.

“If you’ve got 11 players that are definitely your best 11 players, those are the guys you want on the field the majority of the time,” Heacock said.

“If you’ve got 12 players who are pretty much equal, you can sub a little bit more.”

The Buckeyes were doing that early in the year, with Moeller or Bryant playing in nickel situations while linebacker Andrew Sweat came on in the field in base defense. Sweat—who was ninth on the team in tackles a year ago—is back, and likely slides over to the Will (wideside) linebacker spot vacated by Homan. That seems to be his more natural position, and the Buckeyes have a number of good options at Sam (strongside), including juniors Etienne Sabino and Jonathan Newsome, along with redshirt sophomore Dorian Bell.

Sabino is also an option at Mike (middle) linebacker, where he will battle junior Storm Klein and redshirt sophomore Jordan Whiting, who is suspended for the season-opener.

Another key returner for the Buckeyes in 2011 will be cornerback Travis Howard. The junior out of Miami (Fla.) was a high school teammate of Sabino, and really solidified himself as the No. 3 corner last year behind Chekwa and Torrence.

Howard will likely open camp as the boundary corner on the wide side of the field, but the other spot vacated by the seniors is up for grabs. There should be some great competition there between a number of different guys from different classes.

Sophomore Dominic Clarke might get the first shot at it, since he was technically Ohio State’s fourth cornerback in the Sugar Bowl, but redshirt freshman Bradley Roby and senior Donnie Evege will also be in the mix, along with Dionte Allen, a senior who transferred from Florida State. It’s even possible that Bryant could get a look at corner if that’s the best way to get him on the field in 2011.

“I think spring ball is critical to get a lot of reps and see who can make plays,” Heacock said.

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