10 Questions Facing the OSU Defense Heading Into Spring Practice
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Buckeyes return just four starters from last season's defense, but more importantly they return all four of last season's defensive coaches. Turnover on both the roster as well as the coaching staff would have been much tougher to overcome.
With all of the coaches returning, they already have an understanding of what each individual defender is capable of. There is less of a learning curve this time around, though they still haven't seen their players in a football capacity since November, so there are still plenty of question marks.
The coaches likely have more questions than we do, but we thought these 10 would be a good start.
1. Is there a starting middle linebacker on the roster?
Many times prior to the 2012 season, Urban Meyer stressed the need to find a middle linebacker. Ideally, that linebacker would have been Curtis Grant, but it just never happened. Given what the Buckeyes went through to finally find a starter at the position last season, you can bet that Meyer doesn't want to have to do anything like that again this year. If he can find somebody to trust this spring, that may seal the deal.
2. Where does the leadership come from?
Urban Meyer has talked on and on about the leadership of last season's defense, citing John Simon and Zach Boren as guys he could always count on. It's doubtful that he is expecting another Simon, but you better believe he is expecting some leaders to step up. The good thing about the bowl ban, if there was such a thing, is that it likely exposed who a few of the leaders on this defense would be, given that they had to organize voluntary workouts.
3. Will there be a pass rush?
Ohio State averaged 2.5 sacks per game last season, which was second in the Big Ten. That would probably be a good number to shoot for in 2013, but since they're going to be going against the best offensive line in the Big Ten during the spring, the pass rush might be a bit stifled early on. The good thing is that they will be competing against the best, which should get them better every day.
4. How much will Ryan Shazier be affected by a new front four?
One of the reasons that Shazier was so good last season was because he had John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams in front of him. He does not have that same luxury in 2013. If the new defensive line struggles, then the linebackers will struggle as well, including Shazier. Things obviously won't be as easy this season as they were last year, but great players should be able to overcome a few obstacles.
5. Are there playmakers on the front four?
There's more to making a play than simply sacking the quarterback. Will this defensive line be able to get penetration? Will they get into the backfield and disrupt the offense's timing? Will the run stoppers be able to hold their ground, clogging the running game? Not only will this front four go against an outstanding offensive line this spring, they'll also be dealing with the conference's best quarterback, and arguably its best running back as well. If they can make some plays against this offense, then that would certainly answer a few questions.
6. Is Joshua Perry ready to be a starter?
Perry is the most likely linebacker to start somewhere alongside Ryan Shazier this season, so it would be expected that he make some plays throughout spring ball. He received some valuable time last season, so he won't enter the spring with stars in his eyes. He looked a bit unsure of himself at times last year, but this is his chance to show that he belongs.
7. Will there be a battle to start at cornerback opposite Bradley Roby?
Cornerback Doran Grant is going to be a wanted man this spring, as guys like Armani Reeves, Najee Murray, Adam Griffin and Tyvis Powell all look to jump on what they believe to be an open spot. And don't forget about freshmen Eli Apple and Cameron Burrows, who have already enrolled and will participate in spring practice. Grant is the likely starter – Kerry Coombs called him the "third starter" last year, after all – but that doesn't mean he can just roll his helmet out there and win the job. Everybody is coming after his spot, and he will need to respond.
8. Will a position change or two be necessary?
It's not uncommon for players to move around once the coaches get a good look at them in practice. It happened to Christian Bryant as a freshman in 2010, who was quickly moved from cornerback to safety. Will the coaches see something in a player over the next month that makes them want to see him play a different position? Or will there be a position so lacking that it necessitates the move of a player or two?
9. There may be 11 starters, but will there be 11 backups?
Urban Meyer wants to have a depth chart once spring practice is over with. With just four starters returning, finding seven more starters is what's most important. Because of the relative unknown nature of the depth on defense, finding 11 backups could be a tall order. However, this is a talented roster, and if a player is going to emerge, he will do it in the spring. Everything will be measured and calculated, the question is whether or not all of that math adds up to 22 players on defense that the coaching staff is happy with.
10. Can Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington live up to their billing?
Last year, they were two of the most-heralded defensive line recruits in the nation. This year, they are set to start on an Ohio State defensive line as true sophomores. Spence leads all returning defensive linemen with 237 plays from scrimmage last season. Washington is second with 156. Together, not only are they the most hyped of 2013's probably starters, they are the most experienced. They showed a small portion of what is expected of them last year. This year, they need to show much more, and the earlier the better.
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