Simon, Boren Expect Big Things from 2013 Defense
By Brandon Castel
By the end of the 2012 college football season, Ohio State’s defense was playing at a championship level, but it wasn’t always that way during Urban Meyer’s maiden voyage in Columbus.
The Buckeyes gave up four touchdowns to a mangy Cal team in week three – the Golden Bears would finish 3-9 in Jeff Tedford’s final season – and then surrendered more points against Indiana, 49, than any OSU defense had allowed in over two decades. Ohio State nearly coughed up an 18-point lead in the final seven minutes of the game that night in Bloomington before pulling out a narrow 52-49 win by recovering the Hoosiers’ final onside kick attempt.
Photo by Jim Davidson
After the game, cornerback Bradley Roby called it ‘embarrassing,’ and Meyer said he was more relieved it was over than excited about the victory. Forget the fact Ohio State, a team that won just six games the year before, improved to 7-0 with the win over Indiana, it simply wasn’t the kind of performance championship teams are made of. Meyer called the defense’s performance “painful to watch,” but the one bright spot was Zach Boren, the senior captain who moved over from fullback to middle linebacker just four days earlier.
“I think we started to mesh together,” two-time OSU captain John Simon told The-Ozone this offseason.
“We had a lot of young guys and Zach coming over to help us when we had some injuries really solidified some things for us. We just kept coming together as a team and by the end of the year we were able to play well.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
If not national championship caliber, the Buckeyes were certainly good enough on defense to win a Big Ten Championship – they were the Leaders Division champs despite the postseason ban – and it’s hard to argue that many teams in the country were firing on more cylinders come November.
The Buckeyes did not allow more than 23 points in a game over the final five weeks of the season, and they held Wisconsin, a team that hammered Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten title game, to just 14 points in an overtime win up in Madison.
Maybe they weren’t quite on Alabama’s level – was anyone? – but they held No. 19 Michigan to just 21 points in the season finale despite playing without their senior leader and best defensive player in Simon. Now they have to replace not only Simon, but Boren, Johnathan Hankins and a host of other key players on the defensive side of the football from last year’s perfect season.
“When you lose guys like Hank and John Simon, Nathan Williams and Garrett Goebel up front, you immediately think you’re going to be young,” secondary coach and co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers said.
“The learning curve is going to be steeper. Coming out of spring, I thought coach (Mike) Vrabel did a great job getting those young guys up to speed really fast. The kids felt some confidence in the spring of what we needed to have done. We’re a little ahead of the curve but we still have a lot of work to do.”
The Buckeyes haven’t replaced all four starters on the defensive line since the 1980s. The most experienced returning player on the defensive line, J.T. Moore, may not even be in the mix for a starting spot in the fall. After starting three seniors up front last season, Vrabel will have none in the rotation this year and only four juniors to pick from, but there is plenty of talent in the system if the coaches can get them ready to play by August.
“I look at Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington, guys up front who seemed to thrive in what we’re doing,” Withers said.
“They’re those type of players, more aggressive players. Noah Spence had an excellent spring.”
Along with the entire front four, the Buckeyes must replace two starting linebackers from last season and one starting corner. That doesn’t worry Simon, who led the Big Ten in sacks last season as the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think they have a lot of talent, an extreme amount of talent, they just need to work together to build that bond between one another and learn how to work off each other,” he told The-Ozone.
“That takes a little bit of time, but that’s what training camp is for.”
Spence and Washington are both coming off big spring performances. They capped it with an exciting production in the Ohio State Spring Game down in Cincinnati, but it takes more than just talent to put a good defense on the field.
“I think you're always concerned about the leadership and the mentality of the way those guys are handling everything,” second-year defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said.
“Those are the things you worry about. You worry about how they gel together, how the leadership guys step up and make the guys around him better.”
While Ohio State won’t have much experience in the front seven at the start of the season, they should have plenty on the back end. Along with three seniors at the safety position – including returning starters Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett – the Buckeyes have a third-year junior at cornerback in Bradley Roby who might just be the best defensive back in college football.
“They have those guys on the back end with swag, and I would take those guys against any receivers in the country,” Zach Boren said.
“With Roby, Christian Bryant and C.J. and those guys, they are great football players. When you have those guys on the back end shutting everything down, you can put more guys in the box to stop the run. When you’re stopping the run, you can do anything.”
A big key to stopping the run this season will be the play of Boren’s replacement at middle linebacker. The Buckeyes simply didn’t have one until halfway through last season, but they are hoping Curtis Grant is ready to fill that void this time around. At least one of his former teammates believes he will be.
“I expect big things out of Curtis this year,” Simon said.
“He’s a tremendous player. I think he has the defense down and I look forward to watching him play. He’s a tough guy. He has that leadership ability and he’s one of the guys who could step up and really take control of the defense.”
Along with all of the talent that left Columbus after the end of last season, the Buckeyes have to replace four captains on defense from the 2012 team. Guys like Simon, Boren, Goebel and Etienne Sabino were a big part of why Meyer’s first team accomplished perfection with a very imperfect performance through the season, and it’s going to take a repeat performance from some new leaders on defense if the Buckeyes are going to keep their head coach out of the loss column for another season.
“There are lot of guys who can step up and take the leadership responsibility, but it’s hard to pick,” Simon said.
“They’re going to have to step up and do it themselves, so I’ll leave that up to them. There’s a lot of guys who could do that, but they have to step up and take it.”
Junior linebacker Ryan Shazier is one of the guys who has shown tremendous promise as a leader, at least in the way he carries himself on the field. Other guys will have to emerge this fall, but that’s to be expected at a place like Ohio State.
“I expect big things from this team. A lot of people will say they’re young and don’t have much experience, but I expect a lot,” Boren commented.
“I know how good some of these guys are and I’ve seen how hard they work. Someone’s going to step up. They just are. It’s Ohio State, it’s the Big Ten, someone’s going to step up and take control of the defense and start making plays. I know they’re going to be perfectly fine.”
If not, Boren is also quite familiar with what Braxton Miller and his former teammates on the other side of the ball are capable of doing this season.
“When you have the offense they’re going to have next year,” Boren said, “they’re going to be putting up 40 plus points a game; it’s going to be easier for the defense.”
Boren might be right, but that’s not what Fickell and Withers will be telling those guys next month.