Five Questions Facing the Buckeye Defense This Spring
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The 2014 season is going to be a big one for the Ohio State defense because there is really no other choice. Two new defensive assistants have been brought in, and as a staff the defensive coaches have been charged with fixing everything that has been broken.
Those fixes will have to be done with a mix of old and new faces, and the patching will begin this week. Co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash will look for answers in the secondary, and Luke Fickell will look for his own answers at linebacker. If they are both successful, then the defense as a whole will follow suit.
What faces them this spring is a string of questions that don't yet have answers. Some of those questions are addressed below. They are obviously hopeful that the correct answers emerge, and soon.
1. How many lineups will the secondary have?
This will be Chris Ash's first legitimate look at what he has in the secondary. Obviously there will be an initial lineup, but with all of the unknowns, I wonder how many different "first teams" there will be. This is a clean slate for everybody in the secondary, and if they didn't play last season, that doesn't really matter right now. Ash has some preconceived notions, but not enough for those notions to overrule what his eyes and the film tell him. Will there be a safety or two who challenges the two assumed starters in Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell? Will there be a new cornerback running next to Doran Grant with the ones every week? Ash is undoubtedly hoping his depth chart decisions will be made difficult by his myriad options.
2. How deep will this defensive line go?
We have talked in the past about former defensive line coach Mike Vrabel's reluctance to employ a heavy rotation for his defensive linemen. That should change a little at least with Larry Johnson now in charge. The question then becomes how much rotation is this unit capable of? If players can't play, then there's no need to rotate. But as we saw from defensive end Jamal Marcus in the Orange Bowl, sometimes all a player is asking for is a chance. With the versatility of players like Adolphus Washington and Michael Bennett, there should be more opportunities to get others involved. What the Buckeyes need to avoid is leaving a player on the bench who can make an impact, like Marcus a season ago. Is that player redshirt freshman defensive end Tyquan Lewis this year? Maybe this spring will give us an idea.
3. Can the linebackers make plays?
The Buckeyes return starting linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant, but in a combined five years on the field, they have a total of six tackles for loss to their credit. That's not good enough, and won't be good enough if a playmaker doesn't step up. A season ago Ryan Shazier finished with 22.5 tackles for loss by himself. Nobody is asking for that this season, but a year where every starting linebacker is approaching double digits isn't too much to ask. It will be interesting to see if the young linebackers like Raekwon McMillan, Trey Johnson and Darron Lee are able to make plays that the veterans never have. And if so, will a change be made?
4. Will a cornerback step up?
Right now there are three candidates vying for the open cornerback spot opposite Doran Grant. Redshirt freshmen Eli Apple and Gareon Conley are taller and longer, while junior Armani Reeves is the veteran of the group. One of the first things observers will be watching for is to see which of these three is running with the first team. We can assume each of them will get reps with the first team throughout spring, but towards the end of spring, cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs will want to have somebody stake a claim. If that doesn't happen, then the competition will start all over again in the fall, which could put the entire defense behind schedule.
5. Will the star become a playmaking position again?
Urban Meyer has talked for years about his desire to have an aggressive defense, and the assumption is that Chris Ash and Luke Fickell will begin to employ such a defense. One of the areas of the defense that could be jump-started with such a shift is the nickel back position. Not since Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller has the star position been one that really wreaked havoc on an offense. Could that be changing with a player like Cameron Burrows, or anybody else who may emerge? The emergence of spread offenses can make it more costly to be too aggressive, but as we've seen over the last few years, being passive is plenty costly itself.
Related Article: Five Questions About the Offense that Need Answers this Spring
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