Yesterday we took a position-by-position look at the Ohio State offense after spring practice. Today, we’ll do the same to the defensive unit, which lost stars such as cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker James Laurinaitis to NFL.
We’ll also take a look at the OSU special teams in light of the graduation losses of kicker Ryan Pretorius and punter A.J. Trapasso.
Defensive End – To say the Buckeyes have an embarrassment of riches at this position would be an understatement. While most defensive line coaches would kill for one good defensive end, Jim Heacock could have as many as a half-dozen.
Start with Thaddeus Gibson, who looks to be poised for a breakout season in 2009. The 6-2, 240-pounder is a throwback to the snarling, glowering defensive end of yesterday that lived to make the opposing quarterback’s life miserable. It may have been an indictment of Ohio State’s reworked offensive line, but Gibson typically had his way most of the time this spring with a variety of bull rushes, swim moves, head slaps and inside weaves.
Behind Gibson at the rush end spot is sophomore Nathan Williams, who showed his talents this spring like he did last fall – in quick bursts. The 6-3, 245-pounder fought through a hamstring injury during the middle part of camp, but he is the type of player who has a real feel for the game and loves to explode through the ball-carrier with his tightly wound frame.
And if Gibson and Williams aren’t enough, the Buckeyes found another rush end this spring in sophomore Solomon Thomas. You know the old saying about the light coming on? The light came on for Thomas and he exploded during the April 18 jersey scrimmage with an amazing seven sacks. Then, just to prove that wasn’t a fluke, the 6-5, 240-pounder got another one in the spring game, throwing quarterback Joe Bauserman for a 17-yard loss.
On the other side, Cameron Heyward seemed a lot more comfortable this spring. After an excellent freshman campaign in 2007, Heyward leveled off a little last year. Now, he looks to be poised for a breakout season of his own. The 6-6, 287-pounder also exhibited a little bit of swagger, squaring off against sophomore offensive tackle Mike Adams during one particular spring afternoon and repeatedly getting under Adams’ skin. The constant needling resulted in a pair of dust-ups between the two, but there was no doubt Heyward was getting the better of his offensive teammate. If he can be as disruptive to the opposition this fall, the Buckeyes will be in very good shape.
Behind Heyward is a trio of players long on potential. Unfortunately, the jury is out on Rob Rose, Lawrence Wilson and Keith Wells.
Rose is a senior and was ready to contend with Heyward for the starting position before a knee injury early in camp slowed him. He returned to contact drills later in the spring but was clearly slowed by the injury. Rose is no stranger to injuries, but he has to come back in the fall ready to play for the Buckeyes to take full advantage of their depth at the defensive end position.
Likewise, Wilson remains a question mark. When he is healthy, the 6-4, 275-pounder has shown flashes of greatness. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy for the past two years. Wilson broke his leg in the opening game of the 2007 season, and then blew out a knee against Purdue last year and missed the final six games. Wilson has the ability and the mentality to be one of Ohio State’s defensive leaders this season, but two major rehabs in as many seasons? It’s asking a lot for him to return and be anything near 100 percent.
Should neither Rose nor Wilson be full-go, the spotlight could fall to Wells. But the 6-5, 210-pound sophomore is no stranger to injury, either. He appeared in only three games during an injury-marred freshman season, and then missed all of spring camp with a shoulder problem.
Defensive Tackle – For the past couple of seasons, interior defensive line players seemed content to simply plug holes and let their teammates pad their tackle stats. That mentality may be over. There were few more vocal players this spring than Doug Worthington, who in his fifth year in the program may be finally assuming a leadership role.
The 6-6, 276-pounder has always been a bit of a tweener – not really athletic enough to play defensive end and not fully given to playing inside. No more. Worthington looks like he has finally embraced the fact that he is a defensive tackle and that bodes well for the Buckeyes. He has always cut an imposing figure and now seems to have the mentality for the position.
The other tackle spot will feature a battle between Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger. I like what each player brings to the table but I’ll admit to some disappointment that neither has reached his potential.
Larimore is a thick, 300-pound former wrestling champion, and wrestlers usually make excellent linemen because they understand how to gain advantages with leverage. Yet Larimore had only 15 tackles last season after getting 16 the year before. The good news is that he has 9.0 tackles for loss, including four sacks, among his 31 career stops. I just think he should have more than 31 tackles at this point in his career.
Denlinger has been held back because of a number of injuries. He has averaged 11 games per season during his three-year career, but the kinds of injuries he has sustained have sapped his natural ability and he has only 24 career tackles. I would have expected three times that many by now. Again some good news: Denlinger appeared 100 percent this spring, so much so that the coaching staff used him some as a blocking tight end. You wouldn’t think they would risk a fifth-year senior doing that if they weren’t convinced he was healthy.
The Buckeyes like to rotate their tackles and that means redshirt freshmen like Garrett Goebel and Willie Mobley may get the opportunity for playing time this fall. Goebel came into the spring with the promise of challenging for a starting job, but Mobley turned several heads with spirited play that included a four-tackle, one-sack performance in the spring game.
Linebacker – Losing players the caliber of Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman is a daunting task, but the Buckeyes have recruited so well the past couple of years, the transition may be more seamless than you think.
First of all, while Heacock continues to refer to the 4-3 alignment as his base defense, the argument could be made the Buckeyes feature many more looks more often than the 4-3. For that reason, it’s an exercise in futility to try and guess the linebacker rotation that will be utilized in the fall. Nevertheless, when the 4-3 is the featured package, the starters – based on what transpired during the spring – will likely be Austin Spitler in the middle flanked by Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.
Spitler has been groomed as Laurinaitis’ replacement in the middle for the past several seasons, and while he isn’t the flashiest player on the field, the 6-3, 234-pound senior has excellent instincts and a lunch-bucket mentality that serves him well. You don’t notice Spitler much when he’s on the field, but he does everything well and has full confidence of the coaching staff to make the defensive calls. Probably his only drawback is trying to be too technical rather than letting the game flow to him.
Homan is as steady as they come on the weak side although you would like to see what he could do without some sort of nagging injury. Like Spitler, Homan is not flashy. He simply gets the job done, especially against the run. If it’s flash you want, Rolle would be more to your liking. He made his first impact as a bone-jarring tackler on special teams, and if he can transfer that mentality to the defense, the Buckeyes will have themselves as excellent replacement for Freeman. What I like best about Rolle is that he is always in attack mode. If there was a knock on Freeman, he was more a read-and-react type player and sometimes had to make the tackle from behind. Rolle seems better at sticking his nose into the pile and keeping the ball-carrier in front of him.
You sometimes needed a scorecard to keep track of the linebackers this spring, and for that reason pinning down a specific rotation remains difficult. Etienne Sabino started out playing in the middle and outside, but near the end of spring camp, the coaching staff tried to simplify things for the 6-3, 232-pound sophomore and he was used exclusively in the middle. It would seem to be Spitler, Sabino and highly regarded freshman Storm Klein at the Mike position.
Homan will be on the weak side and Rolle on the strong side when OSU features a straight-up alignment, but Rolle can also play the weak side. Sophomore Andrew Sweat also got significant reps this spring. True freshman Zach Boren was injured all spring, so it’s impossible to tell where he fits into the mix.
Of course, there will be times when the Buckeyes feature alignments with only two linebackers, sets with the so-called Leo linebacker when Gibson, Williams or Thomas drop back off the line of scrimmage or a crowded look that features the so-called star position featuring either Tyler Moeller (considered a linebacker) or Jermale Hines (known primarily as a safety). All of the different looks are designed for two reasons: to keep the opposition off-balance and maximize Ohio State’s talent by getting the best players on the field at the same time.
For all of the flak Heacock gets, he must be doing something right. Since he took over as defensive coordinator before the 2005 season, OSU has finished no lower than sixth nationally in scoring defense.
Star – Plenty of players had breakout springs, but none played better and more consistently than Moeller. Ever since he was named the state’s defensive player of the year at Cincinnati Colerain in 2005, I’ve been trying to figure out how a guy who is listed (and generously so) at 6-0 and 216 pounds can be a bona fide force at Ohio State. I still haven’t figured it out. He just is.
Moeller is one of those guys who just have a knack for knowing where the football is going to be. He seems extremely instinctive for being in the right place at the right time, and that ability showed up time and time again during spring practice. A week before the spring game, Moeller had 11 tackles in the jersey scrimmage. Then he had a Scarlet team-leading eight tackles that included two for loss and one sack in the spring game.
Moeller’s excellent performances were tempered somewhat by the fact that Hines did not have the same kind of spring. In Hines’ defense, he was nicked up a little bit and the OSU coaching staff still believes the 6-2, 210-pound junior is a defensive star-in-waiting. He can no longer rest on his athletic potential, however, if he wants to continue to get reps at the star position. Moeller has seen to that.
Free Safety – Normally when you have returning starters, fans tend to look upon that as a good thing. Some in the Buckeye Nation, however, have turned ugly on Anderson Russell especially after his ill-advised try for an interception at the end of the Fiesta Bowl resulted in the winning touchdown for Texas.
Despite that fact, Russell remains the starting free safety and it appears doubtful anyone will take that position from him in the fall. Personally, I don’t think Russell is the same player he was before a major knee injury in 2006. Still, he doesn’t get the credit he is due for being a pretty decent free safety. All he did last year was register 67 tackles (tied for fourth on the team) and snag a pair of interceptions (tied for third on the team).
I still like Russell in run support but am like almost everyone else in believing he is average at best in pass coverage. Nothing I saw this spring changed my mind on those two areas. Opposing teams are going to throw at Russell – a lot – this fall and the one area where he could really help himself is catching the ball. He has dropped at least a half-dozen potential interceptions over the past couple of seasons.
As much as the coaching staff likes Russell, it was eager to see if Aaron Gant could put any heat on the incumbent starter this spring. Unfortunately, the impact Gant had hoped to make as he prepares to enter his senior season never happened. He suffered an injury and was overshadowed by redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson, who appeared to have a breakout spring. Johnson made several outstanding plays while toiling on the second-team defense, and he made them despite missing some action with a sometimes-balky hamstring.
Sharing time with Johnson at the free safety spot was sophomore Rocco Pentello, who also had a steady spring. Pentello will likely see most of his action on special teams, though, and his big moment came when he returned a botched field goal snap for a touchdown during the next-to-last week of spring ball.
True freshman Jamie Wood’s first spring as a Buckeye was interrupted by an injury sustained early in camp. Wood returned for the final week of practice, and even chipped in with a solo tackle for the victorious Gray team in the spring game. He will get more of a chance to show what he can do this fall.
Strong Safety – Kurt Coleman will continue to patrol the strong safety position, and he is one of the leading candidates for defensive captain. Perhaps the best thing about Coleman is his work ethic. Each year he has been in the program, he has gotten a little bit better. That is because he does the work he needs to do in the weight room and the film room. There is no coincidence that he has set career-best marks each season he has been a Buckeye, topped off by last year’s 78 tackles (third on the team behind Laurinaitis and Freeman) and a team-leading four interceptions.
If I have one overall knock on Russell (6-0, 205) and Coleman (5-11, 188) it would be their relative lack of size. The Buckeyes need to be especially wary of teams with agile tight ends and big, fast slot receivers.
Should Ohio State want to show a bigger look, it has to look no further than Hines, who spent some time at the strong safety position when Coleman was nursing a minor injury. There had been some pre-spring talk of Coleman possibly moving to a cornerback spot, which would open the strong safety position but that never materialized.
Aaron Gant had hoped to make an impact this spring as he prepares to enter his senior season. But he suffered an injury (reportedly a knee that will have to be scoped) and was overshadowed by redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson, who appeared to have a breakout spring. Johnson made several outstanding plays while toiling on the second-team defense, and he made them despite missing some action with a sometimes-balky hamstring.
Also in the mix at strong safety is Zach Domicone, another redshirt freshman. The 6-3, 215-pound Domicone has the distinction of being the Buckeyes’ biggest defensive back, and he surprised some people this spring by getting some first-team reps. Meanwhile, sophomore Nate Oliver got shuffled back, missing most of the spring with an arm/shoulder injury.
Cornerback – Going to sleep on Taurian Washington’s long touchdown reception notwithstanding, Chimdi Chekwa has the makings of a really, really good cornerback. It’s kind of funny that we don’t think of Chekwa as a returning starter, but he started in place of Donald Washington at the beginning of last season and never relinquished the spot.
As a result, Chekwa gave Jenkins a run for the unofficial title of team’s best cover man. The coaching staff has never been reluctant to put Chekwa on an island in man coverage, and he has 15 pass deflections over the past two years while 50 of his 55 career tackles have been solos.
The staff wants Chekwa to be more aware of run support and improvement in that area was one of his spring goals. He will have to continue to work on balancing run support and pass coverage – sucked in by play action was why he was beaten so badly by Washington in the spring game. Still, Chekwa was steady all spring as well and I have no doubt he will continue to draw the opposition’s top receiver in the fall.
On the other side, with the unenviable task of trying to replace Jenkins, will be either Andre Amos or Devon Torrence. Amos may have nosed ahead by the slightest of edges after an excellent spring, and there is no doubt he has an advantage because he is a senior. But the coaching staff cannot afford the luxury of counting on Amos in the fall. The 6-1, 183-pounder has not been able to stay on the field, and brittle knees have limited him to only eight games over the past two seasons.
Make no mistake: Amos has the tools and physical gifts to play corner and play it well. But with his history of injuries, the coaching staff simply must hedge its bet and keep the position battle open with Torrence, who proved again this spring that he can cover just about any receiver step for step.
If Amos remains healthy and secures the starting nod, look for Torrence to be the No. 1 backup at both corner positions as well as play a prominent role in the Buckeyes’ nickel and dime packages.
The Amos-Torrence battle also involved redshirt freshman Travis Howard at the beginning of the spring, but Howard was shuffled back. That is no knock against his ability – simply that Amos and Torrence have seniority. Howard is expected to begin making a contribution to the Buckeyes this fall on special teams.
One of the most pleasant surprises this spring was the play of sophomore Donnie Evege, who has been plagued by injury for most of the two years he has been a Buckeye. He has a lot of catching up to do depth chart-wise, but Evege had a handful of standout moments this spring.
The Buckeyes also appear to have a good, young prospect in freshman C.J. Barnett. The 6-0, 185-pounder needs to pack a few pounds onto his frame, and there were times when he was out of position. But for the most part, Barnett held up well and made his share of plays during the spring.
One of the deficiencies at corner is the same one that plagues the safeties – relative lack of size. Of the players expected to start, Amos is the tallest at 6-1 while Russell in the only one who tips the scales at more than 200 pounds. That could mean some position jockeying to ensure the 6-2, 210-pound Hines gets into the lineup as much as possible.
Special Teams – I call it the “Nooge Factor,” but I was never quite comfortable with Pretorius as the Buckeyes’ placekicker. I had nothing whatsoever against Ryan, who was always more than accommodating to the media and generally pleasant to be around. It’s just that when you are asked to follow Mike Nugent, the most prolific kicker in program history – well, let’s just say Nooge was a tough act to follow.
Pretorius did well enough, leading OSU in scoring in both 2007 and 2008, and he converted 34 of 44 field goals and 88 of 90 PATs during his career. His lifetime field-goal percentage of 77.3 ranks second only to Nugent (72 of 88, 81.8) and his PAT percentage of 97.9 is tied with Nugent for fourth all-time. Tim Williams (1990-93) holds that record (143 of 145, 98.6).
Now, the duties fall to senior Aaron Pettrey, who has been handling kickoffs the past couple of seasons. Pettrey has a huge leg – perhaps stronger than Nugent – but he suffers fits of inconsistency. He will boot a kickoff well out of the back of the end zone, and then follow that with a knuckleball that doesn’t even get to the goal line. He had only 13 touchbacks among 74 kickoffs last season, and that just doesn’t seem nearly enough for a guy whose leg is as strong as Pettrey’s.
Field goals were another matter. Pettrey was 7 for 8 on three-pointers last fall, including a perfect 4 for 4 from 40 to 49 yards and 2 for 3 from 50 yards and out. Did you know Pettrey has four career three-pointers from 50 or more, and that is tied for second in Ohio State history? (Nugent is the all-time leader with eight.)
The only problem I see with such a strong-legged kicker is that Tressel may choose to get conservative when his team gets into scoring position. Knowing you have a kicker who is consistent from 50 yards is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a tremendous weapon for sputtering offenses. On the other, it may sometimes prevent a coach from going for six points when he feels he already has three in the bank.
In the punting department, the Buckeyes will miss the services of Trapasso. He was never flashy but remarkably consistent, a facet that bears out in his yearly averages over the course of a four-year career – 40.4 yards per punt in 2005, 40.6 in 2006, 41.5 in ’07 and 41.2 last year.
This spring was supposed to produce a position battle between fifth-year senior Jon Thoma and redshirt freshman Ben Buchanan, but it appeared the job was Thoma’s to lose as spring ball began. The good news is that the former walk-on did everything asked of him to hold onto the job. Thoma averaged 41.7 yards on seven kicks in the April 18 jersey scrimmage and came back a week later to average 40.7 yards on three attempts in the spring game.
One other thing about Thoma: Like Nugent, he is an excellent all-around athlete. He played four years of soccer and baseball in high school, and was also a member of the swimming and track teams. One afternoon during spring practice, Thoma was fooling around with the other specialists and showcased a strong throwing arm – 40 yards on the dead run. If Tressel ever wants to gamble with a fake punt, Thoma would seem to be ready, willing and able to pull off any variety of trick plays.
In addition to his punting duties, Thoma will also serve as Pettrey’s holder on field goals and PATs. Jake McQuaide is the long snapper, giving the Buckeyes three former walk-ons as their principal specialists in the kicking game. (You may insert here whatever recruiting criticism you deem necessary for that anomaly.)
Kickoff returns will be the primary purvey of Lamaar Thomas, who quietly led the Buckeyes in that department last season. Unfortunately for Thomas, he never got to showcase the reason why teammates called him “Flash” because OSU seldom gets much out of their kickoff return game. Thomas averaged a paltry 21.6 yards on 16 returns while the Buckeyes averaged 19.2 yards as a team. That was next-to-last in the Big Ten, 108th nationally out of 119 Division I-A schools, and borderline criminal for a team that has so many speedsters like Thomas, Torrence and freshman James Jackson. I’m just not so sure it’s going to get any better in 2009. Between the Scarlet and Gray squads in the spring game, the average of 17.4 yards on five kickoff returns.
Punt returns will likely be a different story. Ray Small led the Big Ten last season in punt return average, and that included a 69-yard return for a touchdown against Ohio and an 80-yard return against Michigan. How good was Small last season returning punts? Throw out those two big returns and his average was still 9.8 yards per return, good enough to have ranked fourth in the Big Ten.
Best of all, the Buckeyes may revisit the strategy of dropping two return men on punts the way they did in 2006 when Anthony Gonzalez provided protection against kicking away from Ted Ginn Jr. Sophomore receiver DeVier Posey fielded plenty of punts during spring practice drills and could team with Small to present a formidable one-two return punch this fall.
Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State receiver and track athlete Chris Sanders, who turns 36 today.
Christopher Dwayne Sanders was born May 8, 1972, in Denver, and he excelled in a number of sports at Montebello High School in his hometown. He was a two-sport star at Ohio State, excelling in football and track. Sanders, nicknamed “Tippy Toes” because of the way he ran, was a three-year starter at flanker for the football Buckeyes, and finished his career with 71 receptions for 1,120 yards. In track, he was a member of the 4×100 championship relay team and also set an indoor school record of 26-9¾ in the long jump. That mark, set in February 1992, still stands. Sanders, who was named Ohio State’s athlete of the year in 1994, was selected by the Houston Oilers in the third round of the 1995 NFL draft and played two seasons with the Oilers and five more when the team moved to Tennessee. He appeared in 97 games during his career, making 54 starts, and finished with 177 receptions for 3,285 yards (18.6 yards per catch) and 17 touchdowns. After his NFL career ended, Sanders settled in the Nashville area and became a high school coach. He is currently the receivers coach and head swimming coach at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-male private school in Nashville.
Other luminaries observing birthdays this 8th day of May: comedian Don Rickles is 83; JFK adviser, counsel and speechwriter Ted Sorensen is 81; novelist and short story writer Thomas Pynchon is 72; former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar is also 72; Seventies pop singer Toni Tennille (one half of Captain & Tennille) is 69; pop singer Gary Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd and best known for the stadium anthem “Rock and Roll, Part 2”) is 65; jazz icon Keith Jarrett is 64; Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey, New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz are all 58; Van Halen drummer Alex Van Halen is 56; former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is 52; Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 51; NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott is 50; actress Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie”) is 45; NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte is 45; pop singer Enrique Iglesias is 34; New York Mets pitcher John Maine is 28; San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is 27; and Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones is 22.
Today also would have been Ohio State offensive lineman Korey Stringer’s 35th birthday.
** California’s Memorial Stadium in Berkeley is undergoing some temporary seismic improvements to guard against potential major earthquake damage. That’s comforting news especially for Ohio State football fans. The Buckeyes are scheduled to visit Cal in 2013.
** Forgive a little Ohio State bias here, but why did it take 22 years for Chris Spielman to make it to the College Football Hall of Fame and only 17 for Gino Torretta? Doesn’t everyone know that Spielman is one of the most underrated linebackers ever to play the game while Torretta is quite possibly the weakest Heisman Trophy winner ever?
** Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is taking a page from mentor Jim Tressel’s book by scheduling some marquee names for upcoming series. The Spartans will take on West Virginia in a home-and-home series beginning in 2014, and have penciled in Alabama for a home-and-home in 2016 and ’17.
** Our old buddy Trev Alberts has a new job. The former Nebraska All-American and ex-ESPN analyst was been named athletic director at Nebraska-Omaha.
** The University of Washington recently announced it was cutting its men’s and women’s swimming programs, a cost-cutting move that will save the school an estimated $1.2 million per year. U-Dub still has to cut $1.6 million more from its athletic budget, according to university officials. This from the same school that just ate $1 million to buy out fired head coach Tyrone Willingham’s contract before giving new coach Steve Sarkisian a five-year deal worth $10 million plus incentives.
** There is no doubting Tiger Woods as the No. 1 drawing card in professional golf. But someone at ESPN is going to have to temper the network’s constant drum-beating of Woods every time he tees it up. Yesterday during the first round of The Players Championship, a headline at ESPN.com read, “Tigers Lurks At Players.” A quick check of the leader board at that time found Woods finished with his round and in a tie for 29th place at 1-under par, five shots behind the co-leaders. He finished six shots behind first-round leader Ben Curtis. I don’t believe that qualified as “lurking.” Woods is unquestionably the best golfer in the world right now, and whenever he beats Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, he will have earned the right to be called the greatest of all time. If Tiger is in contention, that’s great. I know that’s good for the game. But when he’s not in contention, he should be treated as such. I’m tired of watching 18-hole coverage of an also-ran at the expense of guys who actually have a chance to win the tournament.
** According to Playboy magazine, there are five schools in the Big Ten on its list of the Top Party Schools for 2009. Ohio State isn’t one of them. Wisconsin is No. 6 followed by Iowa at No. 9, Penn State at No. 13, Michigan State at No. 19 and Indiana at No. 24. Even Ohio University made the list at No. 18, most notably for its annual Halloween blowout. The top party school on the list? Miami (Fla.) because of its proximity to South Beach and “hard-bodied coeds laying out on the campus lake between classes.” Here is the entire top 25.