Fickell expects Willams to play.

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Last updated: 05/14/2012 4:46 PM

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Football
Fickell Expects Nathan Williams to Play

By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Either Luke Fickell is playing the role of optimistic cheerleader, or Ohio State’s defensive coordinator has seen enough from Nathan Williams this spring to think the senior will be back on the field this fall.

Nathan Williams
Photo by Jim Davidson
Nathan Williams

Williams did not participate in spring practice as he continues to rehab his injured knee from micofracture surgery, but Fickell is hoping to have his star defensive end back on the field for his fifth season with the Buckeyes this fall.

“Nathan will play,” Fickell said while appearing on 10TV’s Wall To Wall Sports Sunday evening.

“It's going to be a situation where 'how healthy is he?', some of those things you just don't know. Some of those things are just going to be Nathan's hurdles that he's got to get over.”

The former 4-star defensive end out of Miami Trace High School has not stepped on a football field in uniform since injuring his left knee in the season-opener against Akron last September.

He was initially expected to miss only a few weeks of the season, but weeks turned into months and eventually Williams had season-ending surgery on his knee. He told the-Ozone.net that he expected to be back at practice for the start of fall camp, but Williams won’t even begin running until June.

The 6-3, 249-pound Williams recorded 89 tackles, including 20½ tackles for a loss, over the past three seasons. He was expected to be the top-returning player on Ohio State’s defense a year ago, and his injury devastated the Buckeyes defensively.

Without his pass-rushing abilities—Williams had 10 sacks coming into last year—the Buckeyes were forced to shuffle bodies around up front on the defensive line. Instead of having Williams at Leo and John Simon at strongside defensive end, Simon had to slide over to play out of position at the Leo spot, a hybrid linebacker/defensive end position that is often asked to drop back into coverage.

Luke Fickell
Photo by Jim Davidson
Luke Fickell

Fickell and then-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock tried to mix and match guys on the line to make up for the loss of Williams, but young ends like Steve Miller and J.T. Moore simply weren’t ready to take on that kind of role in 2011.

They were just 5-7 in the games without Williams, but the emergence of Johnathan Hankins as a major force in the middle actually may have saved the Buckeyes from an even worse year on defense.

“The game's won (were won) up front,” Fickell said.

“And we've got a chance with those guys up front. John Hankins, Garrett Goebel and John Simon, those kind of guys give us an opportunity to be successful in the back end.”

The back end of Ohio State’s defense was atrocious at times in Fickell’s lone season as interim head coach. The linebacking play was a mess, and Ohio State’s young secondary wasn’t ready to make up for the absence of the team’s best pass-rusher.

The good news for Fickell and the Buckeyes is that most of that defense returns from last season, including sophomore linebacker Ryan Shazier, who really came on as Ohio State’s premier playmaker at the end of last season.

“The one thing we've got on defense is a little bit more familiarity. I think that's the one thing through the whole spring that you could tell,” Fickell said.

“Not as many changes with the scheme and the different things you're doing, and having some older guys back, and getting some guys back. I think that's probably what shows the most defensively. The leadership and the guys who have played for quite a while are still there.”

Ohio State’s entire secondary is back from last season, including cornerbacks Bradley Roby and Travis Howard, along with safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant. Orhian Johnson, a senior out of Florida, is the fifth man in the rotation, and sophomore Doran Grant emerged as the No. 3 corner during the spring.

Shazier and Etienne Sabino, a redshirt senior from Miami, will be the starting outside linebackers, and the Buckeyes are hoping sophomore Curtis Grant is ready to handle things in the middle.

Where this team could be special, however, is on the defensive line. The return of Simon and Hankins gives Ohio State two of the top defensive linemen in the conference, if not the country. Simon is lighter, stronger and faster than he was a year ago.

The Buckeyes also have tremendous depth up front, including the addition of Blue Chip prospects like Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence and Se’Von Pittman. If even one of them is ready to make an impact as a freshman, the Buckeyes could be very, very good up front.

Of course they could be great if Williams can return, and play at his old form. That seems like a longshot, even at this point, but Fickell has learned not to count his senior out when the odds are stacked against him.

“How bad does it hurt? What is the forecast in the future,” Fickell asked.

“I look for Nathan to have a heck of a senior year.”

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