Taking Stock: Thoughts on OSU's Defense at the Midway Point of Spring
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It has been a busy and much-publicized spring for the Ohio State defense, and by all accounts, it has also been a productive one. Urban Meyer has spoken of overhauls at linebacker and in the secondary, but that overhaul is coming more in the form of a defensive identity than the players themselves.
Meyer wants a fast defense, and that means more than just speed. He wants their reactions to be immediate, and so far the returns have been positive. Halfway through the spring, those positive reviews should only grow as the defense becomes more accustomed with what they are doing.
With just seven practices remaining for the Buckeyes this spring, it is time to take stock of where things stand for the OSU defense.
When it comes to surprises, for me it is the sheer number of redshirt freshmen who have earned accolades this spring. From linebacker Darron Lee showing up with the ones on the first day, to defensive end Tyquan Lewis with the twos, all the way up to defensive tackle Donovan Munger coming from all the way in the back to earn second-team recognition. There are also cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Eli Apple, both redshirt freshmen as well. The defense will be young in areas, but there appears to be some youthful depth that will make an impact. Looking back on last season, and with an eye on the redshirt freshman ready to produce, it's easy to see why Urban Meyer lamented the amount of defenders who redshirted a year ago. Those players will now be key contributors on a defense that will need them.
To this point it has been a very positive spring for the OSU defense, but the loss of safety Vonn Bell is absolutely a disappointment. While Bell received a significant number of reps in the bowl practices, those reps came at nickel, not safety. Now, with Bell out, Cameron Burrows moves from nickel to safety, which means that neither of them will be playing the spot they were expected to start at in 2014. Once fall camp begins, do these two then compete for the starting job at safety? And then does the loser move to nickel? Chris Ash and Urban Meyer have confidence in both players, but they'd much rather have them both healthy and competing right now.
The unquestioned leader of the defense this spring is defensive tackle Michael Bennett, and it is no surprise. He was the leader of the defensive line a year ago even as a junior. He has prepared himself well for what is to come this season. Even new defensive line coach Larry Johnson has seen the type of leadership out of Bennett that teams covet. Tyvis Powell, even though he is just a redshirt sophomore, has also been a leader this spring, joining cornerback Doran Grant in working towards making the secondary the strength that it needs to be. Linebackers Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant will continue to be leaders through the rest of this spring, and then especially this summer when three more freshmen arrive.
The only true freshmen enrolled this spring on defense is also the most-heralded true freshman of the 2014 Ohio State recruiting class. Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan has impressed his coaches and his teammates so far, but sometimes freshmen have trouble maintaining their focus down the back stretch of spring ball. His teammates will need to keep his head up these last two weeks as he continues to battle for reps in the middle. If he makes it through standing tall, then there's a chance he will carry the spring battle all the way into the fall. But even if he can't, the summer will rejuvenate him and he still still be heard from once the games begin.
Prediction for the Second Half
Expect cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Eli Apple to make a push on Armani Reeves. All three have played well, and Conley and Apple have shown moments of being too good to be happy as a backup. Both wanted to be on the field last season, and now they both see how close they are to that becoming a reality this coming season. Also, expect a similar surge from a few defensive linemen like Jamal Marcus and Michael Hill. Marcus is behind Noah Spence and Steve Miller right now, so he is going to have to work even harder to get involved. That work should pay off down the stretch.
Related Article: Taking Stock if the offense.
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