Spring Thoughts on the Defense at the Midway Point
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Tuesday will mark the ninth of the Buckeyes' 15 spring practices, and it will be open to the media. We have seen the team in action three times this spring, with three more times to go.
Defensively, there is still so much more to learn about this defense. We know who the players are, and where they will be lining up, but we don't really know how productive they will all be.
Based on potential, it's easy to say that this defense should step up simply because that's what talented programs do. But the problem with young defenses is that potential often flashes and blinks. Like a "Walk/Don't Walk" sign, sometimes the message it conveys changes, altering the flow of traffic immediately.
Still, this defense has a veteran secondary to rely on, as well as one of the best linebackers in the nation. It's okay to load up on young players as long as there are enough veteran leaders to see the youngsters through the hard times.
Defensive Line. Replacing four starters on a defensive line is probably a defensive line coach's worst nightmare. Or at least it would be if there wasn't still talent on hand to work with.
That's where Mike Vrabel is right now. Yes, he needs to find four new starters, but he's confident in his options. As he said last week, there will always be defensive linemen at Ohio State, and this year is no different.
Photo by Jim Davidson
It's impossible to watch defensive ends Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence in person and not be impressed. Washington is nearly 300 pounds, but still plenty nimble and athletic enough to play on the edge. He's a natural pass rusher, which is mostly how we've seen him so far this spring. Honestly, I would not be surprised to see him lead the team in sacks this season. I know a lot of people are going to point towards Spence, but I like the consistency of Washington. Plus, I have a feeling Spence will be chasing a lot of quarterbacks right into Washington's hungry arms.
During one-on-ones, Spence is always worth a few "Wow!" moments as he either dips inside of a blocker, runs right past a blocker on the outside, or simply gets dragged down by his beaten opponent. It doesn't happen every time, and Spence himself admits that he still needs a better grasp of the defense, but you can see snapshots of the disruptor that he is going to become.
Even if I hadn't seen any of Spence this spring, the smile that offensive line coach Ed Warinner had when talking about him recently would have clued me in. The only question is how quickly he emerges. He's certainly the starter at Leo, but will his production match his potential?
Photo by Jim Davidson
I'm also very high on defensive tackle Michael Bennett. When he is healthy, he is productive and a difficult matchup inside for the slower interior linemen. I can't help but chuckle at the thought of their 3-2-6 defensive look on passing downs, featuring Spence, Bennett and Washington. These are the team's three best pass rushers, and then you perhaps add in a blitzing Ryan Shazier, and you've got some serious speed chasing Big Ten quarterbacks around.
There is certainly concern as to whether the 285-pound Bennett can hold up against the running game. He will be disruptive with his quickness, but what happens when an offensive lineman gets a hold of him? He is not the immovable wall that Jonathan Hankins was, and he never will be. However, he certainly brings his own skillset.
Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale at nose tackle will probably never win the fawning adoration of the populace, as that's not what their position is known for. The fact that Hale started with the ones but is now with the twos tells me that Schutt has been performing well. However, Vrabel has also had some encouraging words regarding Hale. Both are going to play a ton this year.
People are clamoring, including his coaches, for defensive end Steve Miller to finally break through. He's had some moments this spring, but like most of his career, he's not as consistent as he needs to be. I don't think he's a Leo, and he's not really a strongside defensive end either.
Watching Jamal Marcus learn the Leo position is a lot like watching somebody run full blast through a house of mirrors. Yeah, there are a lot of face plants and dead ends right now, but eventually he's going to learn the route, and then when he does, he's going to be something to see.
Speaking of something to see, I don't know if nose tackle Chris Carter is ever going to see the field during a game, but every time we see him in practice, he certainly has his moments. He has his down times, but quite often an inside run play will be completely shut down because the offensive line can't get Carter out of the way. He plugs the entire play, and then everybody else runs around him to make the tackle. There are also times when he gets handled fairly easily and the middle is left wide open.
True freshman defensive ends Tracy Sprinkle and Tyquan Lewis are trying to swim right now, but they have their hands full against this offensive line. However, the benefits of these struggles will come in the fall.
Linebackers. There hasn't been much to see where the linebackers are concerned this spring. With Ryan Shazier out while recovering from surgery, and the Buckeyes rarely going with a base three linebacker look, there haven't been many plays to make.
Granted, I've been watching the offense more than the defense this spring, but you can watch football with your eyes closed, and playmakers are still going to jump out at you.
Photo by Jim Davidson
There have been moments for the linebackers. David Perkins comes to mind a time or two with a violent collision, but I don't know that questions are really being answered quite yet.
Though a lack of plays at this point may not really mean anything. A year ago in the first week of practice, Curtis Grant was making plays all over the place. It didn't translate to September, so I'm not expecting too much of March to do the same.
At this point Luke Fickell is looking for two linebackers to play alongside Shazier. In reality, however, the Buckeyes are going to be in nickel two-thirds of the time anyway, so right now they need to find their second-best linebacker. It will be interesting to see what happens if that second linebacker happens to be Perkins, considering he and Shazier play the exact same spot.
Defensive Backs. There's something that you need to realize when you're watching Bradley Roby during the spring: he's not always interested in locking his man down. Even his coach Kerry Coombs has talked about how he doesn't like Roby's penchant for baiting quarterback Braxton Miller. But that's one of the many ways that Roby challenges himself during practice.
The interesting part of this strategy is that receiver Devin Smith has had his share of success against Roby this spring. Now, that doesn't really mean anything in regards to Roby, but it's interesting for Smith's benefit. After all, he's not always baiting Miller; sometimes Smith just gets the best of him.
Photo by Jim Davidson
I've been impressed with Doran Grant. Coombs has talked about how much work he has put in with Grant, and he is seeing the improvement every day. Both Coombs and Grant said last year was a disappointment for Grant, but they each agree that he is a much better player right now than he was last year. The one glaring weakness that I've seen this spring is that he isn't catching passes that he is getting his hands on, forcing him and his teammates to immediately do pushups.
With Grant having locked down the starting spot at field corner per Coombs, there is still a very important third cornerback job open. Armani Reeves has made a bunch of plays this spring, though he's lacking some consistency at times. I expect him to leave the spring as the third cornerback, just as he entered it.
Freshman cornerbacks Eli Apple and Cameron Burrows are athletic freaks. They are both tall and physical. They don't always know where they're going, but they always get there fast. Coombs said that he expects all five cornerbacks to play this season, and not just on special teams. The future is bright with these two. It will be interesting to see if they make a move on Reeves over these last seven practices.
C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant have been leading vocally this spring, as well as physically. The staff continues to like Bryant's range, and he has provided a number of interceptions. People want to know how well these two are tackling, and so far so good. Tackling has actually been few and far between, considering that not every drill is contact, and the reps are split fairly even between the ones and twos right now.
I've been impressed with Tyvis Powell at star. He's tall and rangy, so he can cover a lot of ground, but he's physical enough to help out with the run game. I want to see the competition between him, Devan Bogard and perhaps even Vonn Bell in the fall. Powell is a tremendous athlete, and his versatility certainly helps him out in a hybrid position like the star.
Overall. The potential at defensive end could be as high as it's been since Mike Vrabel was teaming with Matt Finkes 20 years ago. It could also be as inconsistent as it's ever been. However, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are just too talented to be lost for too long.
I think the coaches are already pretty sure what the linebacker situation is going to look like in September. It will take a strong last two weeks to change things now. And I'm not sure anybody has done enough to make me think incoming freshmen Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson won't also get serious looks this fall.
The secondary will have a lot on their shoulders while the front seven gets themselves situated this season. How well the safeties handle the growing pains could determine the entire fate of this season.
Unless, of course, the Buckeye offense simply blows everybody out.
Offense at the Midway Point - By Tony Gerdeman
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