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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

Simon2A few weeks ago we looked at the 2011 Ohio State offense, with all of its uncertainties, suspensions and inexperience, and tried to identify some keys to their success this season. There is little doubt that the unproven Buckeye youngsters at the skill positions on offense are going to struggle in the early going.

But there is also little doubt in Columbus that the Buckeyes defense will be stout enough to keep the team in every game while the offense gets settled. Because that’s what they do. Throughout the Tressel years, under current coordinator Jim Heacock and his predecessor Mark Dantonio, an effective Ohio State defense has become a tradition. It is expected...counted upon.... often taken for granted.

Well, maybe you’ve heard...the Tressel Era is officially over. But Heacock remains to coach the Buckeye least for one more year...and for a program starved for good news, that is one huge chunk of it. This week we’ll take a quick look back at last year’s Buckeye defense, and then profile the personnel you’ll see on the field in the 2011 version.

The 2010 Defense and the Heacock track record...

2010 was a fine year for the Ohio State defense, even by the high standards set by Heacock. They were 4th in the FBS in total defense, and 3rd against the rush. Only Wisconsin and Michigan rushed for over 150 yards as a team against them. Opposing teams have never been able to make a living running the ball against Heacock’s Silver Bullets.

But as they say, there are lies, damned lies and statistics.....and stats do sometimes lie. Teams with terrible pass defenses often have pretty good rush defense numbers, because opponents find it easier to throw the ball on them. Ohio State is not one of those teams.

The Buckeye defense gave up only five pass completions of more than 30 yards all last season...and four of those were in lopsided wins over Eastern Michigan and Minnesota. The team gave up nine touchdown passes all year, two of those by Ryan Mallett in the bowl game. That performance ranked them 8th in passing defense among the 120 FBS teams.

In the ultimate statistic...scoring defense, the 2010 Buckeyes were ranked 5th nationally, at 14.3 points per game.  And if you take out the four special teams scores the team gave up, the points actually surrendered against the defense was 12.2 ppg. Just three (Wisconsin, Miami, Arkansas) of their 13 opponents scored more than 20 points against the Bucks, and Miami needed two kick return scores to do it.

I know....ancient history. But Jim Heacock makes a habit of fielding stingy defenses over the last decade or more. It has been the reliable, annual defensive productivity supplied by Heacock that made what we called “Tresselball” on offense even remotely possible. Just using the NCAA total defense ranking of the 120 FBS teams as an indicator, OSU has finished ranked 4th (2010), 5th (‘09), 14th (‘08), 1st (‘07), 12th (‘06) and 5th (“05) under Heacock over the last six seasons.

That is the stuff of which six straight conference titles are made. And it is the reason the staff and players feel good about the 2011 OSU defense, despite the loss of seven starters from that stellar unit of a year ago. That, and a look at the talent backed up on the defensive side of the OSU roster.


Defensive Line

Cameron Heyward has gone over to the dark side, (and Dex Larimore signed with the Saints), but the rest of the defensive line standouts return for OSU in 2011, and the presence of five highly-rated freshmen guarantees some nice depth for that group.

OSU opponents will have to deal with some configuration of Nathan Williams, Johnny Simon and Johnathan Hankins on the Buckeyes defensive line, with Adam Bellamy and Garrett Goebel rotating in to what will usually be a four-man front.  Versatility is key to what Jim Heacock asks of his defensive linemen, and he moves his players around a lot on game day.


NWilliams14John Simon looks like he could be peaking in this his junior year. While mainly an inside player at defensive tackle his first two seasons in Columbus, he was used at the strongside defensive end spot at times last year, and this spring he probably lined up at SSDE as often as he did at tackle. Simon’s strength is legendary, and he was simply unblockable at times in spring ball. He was one of 12 players on the preseason Big Ten “Players to Watch” list, and is ranked 1st Team All-Big Ten by Lindy’s, among others. Expect a lot more national recognition for John Simon (pictured at top and #54 at bottom) before the 2011 season is over.

Nathan Williams (#43 at right) will be entering his third year as the starting stand-up “Leo” end, where his speed game can be used to rush the passer (4.5 sacks - ‘10) or drop off in coverage. (interception vs. Miami at :57 mark). This spring they showed a 3-man front of Simon and Bellamy at the ends and Hankins on the nose, with Williams (6’ 3”, 255) floating freely behind the line looking to shoot a gap into the backfield. He’s extremely strong with his hands, and once his mitts are on a ball carrier, he’s down. Williams made preseason 3rd Team All-American and 1st Team All Big Ten by Phil Steele.

330-pound guys aren’t all that hard to find in America. Guys that size with the feet, the quickness and the agility of Johnathan “Big Hank” Hankins are a lot tougher to identify. The sophomore from Michigan can be a load to handle from either the 3-technique tackle spot, or on the nose.  Center Mike Brewster has raved about the potential Hankins has as a player. The man just completely disrupts the offensive backfield when he penetrates. Hankins’ conditioning is said to be improving, and if he can be productive for four quarters, he’ll be a major force in the middle.

Garrett Goebel would probably start at the nose in OSU’s base four-man front if there were a game tomorrow. That’s where the coaches think he performs best, which means more time at the 3-technique for Hankins. Goebel goes 6’ 3”, 290, and brings the wrestling background OSU loves in their defensive tackles. He’s a 4th-year junior who also saw some time at DE last year.

Adam Bellamy, the redshirt sophomore from Aurora has taken advantage of his playing time at both SSDE and inside at tackle. He played in every game in 2010, contributing 11 tackles and 2 TFL. When Simon goes down inside, you’ll often see Bellamy at the strongside end position. At 6’ 4”, 302, Bellamy can also hold his own at defensive tackle. He’ll be playing a lot in Heacock’s tackle rotation with Hankins, Goebel and Simon, and #93 will get your attention.


defense_OUAt defensive end, the returning Buckeye backups are Melvin Fellows, the oft-injured 3rd-year sophomore pass-rusher from Garfield Hts, Darryl Baldwin, a 6’4”, 290-lb redshirt freshman from Solon, and Boardman product  J.T. Moore, another redshirt freshman who had a good spring backing up Williams at the Leo spot, and who could hold that position down at least until Solomon Thomas returns from his 5-game suspension, or until one of the freshmen unseats him.

At defensive tackle, after the four-man rotation above (which contains no seniors), it’s converted offensive guard Evan Blankenship, Baldwin, who gets reps at tackle as well, and a host of walk-ons, before you get to a couple of promising true freshmen.


The first two commits to the Class of 2011 were the two best defensive ends in Ohio, Kenny Hayes of Toledo Whitmer and Steve Miller from Canton McKinley. Both kids were nationally recruited, and either or both of them could see the field early this year, especially if Fellows doesn’t show more durability and productivity than he has so far. Chase Farris and Michael Bennett are both highly-rated, versatile linemen who could be projected either inside or outside as collegians, and Joel Hale impressed everyone this spring when he came in early and turned heads at defensive tackle right away.



The Buckeyes lost five of their top six tacklers from a year ago, and the top three (Brian Rolle, Ross Homan and Jermale Hines) were linebackers who are gone in 2011.  Those three seniors alone racked up 214 tackles last year, so it would be crazy to say they won’t be missed this season.

This OSU linebacker corps is not as deep with returning players as the team is in some other position groups, but as with the defensive linemen, the starters are very solid, and there is a strong-looking crop of incoming freshmen to bolster the depth chart.


Sweat5Etienne Sabino has been making OSU writers look bad for two years now, for projecting him as a “breakout” player for the Buckeyes...because he just hasn’t. That is about to change. Barring injury, the 4th-year junior will finally get his shot as the starting “Mike” middle linebacker for OSU, and if his spring showing is any kind of representative sample, OSU fans have reason to be excited about him. Sabino, (6’3”, 242) agreed to take a redshirt year in 2010, with Homan and Rolle entrenched, and after Andrew Sweat beat him out for the starting strongside (Sam) linebacker job.

In the middle, he’ll have a chance to display his athleticism and sideline-to-sideline speed, and also to show his improving grasp of Heacock’s system. If Sabino can finally harness his immense talent and stay healthy, the Buckeyes have a special player on their hands.

Andrew Sweat will shift over to the weakside (Will) linebacker position this season to take better advantage of his strengths in pursuit and tackling. Sweat had 41 tackles, 3 TFL and an interception last year starting at the Sam spot. That’s more impressive when you consider that the OSU defense plays about 50% of the time in the nickel package, without a Sam linebacker on the field. Sweat (#42 at right) should be a tackling machine at Will, and as one of only three senior starters (Williams, Moeller) on defense, he’ll be counted on as a leader on that unit.

Storm Klein looks to be the odds-on favorite to claim the starting Sam linebacking job. The junior from Newark has been productive in a backup and special teams role for two years, and he seems to have a nose for the ball along with solid tackling technique and decent coverage skills and hands. Klein (#32 below) may end up fighting off some talented freshmen for playing time, but I expect him to produce in a big way now that he’s got his shot.

Tyler Moeller is back for what seems like his ninth year at Ohio State, and he reports that he is in terrific shape physically. The pectoral muscle tear that cost him the most of the 2010 season is completely healed, and there are no lingering issues from the severe head injury that cost him the 2009 season. Moeller is slated to start at the hybrid “Star” spot for Heacock’s defense, a position he won at the start of last season, and which combines duties of both safety and linebacker. It’s tough to predict what level of performance we can expect from the senior after almost two years of inactivity. But it will probably be more of the blitzing, tackling, high-energy leadership that got him the nickname “Tasmanian Devil” before his injuries forced him to the sidelines. It has been a very long road back to playing time for Tyler Moeller. All you can do is admire his perseverance and wish him the best.


Junior inside backer Jordan Whiting had an impressive spring, and after sitting out the opener on a one-game Tatgate suspension, he could contribute at the Mike or Sam spots. Ignatius product Scott McVey is a redshirt freshman who will be getting his first collegiate playing time in 2011, and former walk-on Tony Jackson will compete for time at the Sam position. The losses of Dorian Bell, who is suspended for the entire 2011 season, and Jonathan Newsome, who is leaving the program, leave the group a little thin among the reserves.


OSU has one of the better incoming linebacker classes in the country, even after Ejuan Price de-committed this spring. Curtis Grant was the nation’s #1-ranked outside linebacker, and Florida product Ryan Shazier was #5 (Scout). Shazier enrolled early and made a good impression in spring ball, and Grant’s talent will at least get him into some special teams duty. Maryland native Connor Crowell rounds out the list of newcomers. He was ranked by Scout as the nation’s #24 inside linebacker.


Defensive Backs

Last year’s starting OSU cornerbacks will both be in NFL camps this August, but the Buckeyes will reload with a new wave of talent at the position. And a freakish string of injuries to safeties a year ago made an inexperienced group even more so, but a year later that unit is both healthier and more seasoned.


TravisHoward2Junior Travis Howard was the third CB in 2010, playing behind seniors Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence, and he is firmly entrenched as the starter at the field cornerback position going into the new season. Howard had two interceptions last year, including one for a 30-yd touchdown against Penn State, and he filled in well when Chekwa got knocked out of the Sugar Bowl. Injuries have held him back in his first three seasons in Columbus, but Howard (#18 at right) is an NFL-caliber talent who is poised to make his mark in 2010.

The competition will be fierce for the starting boundary corner position opposite Howard this year. Sophomore Dominic Clarke started spring ball on top of the depth chart and played well, but Florida State transfer Dionte Allen and redshirt freshman Bradley Roby both had strong springs as well, and either one is capable of grabbing that starting role away from Clarke with a strong August performance.

In any event, there is excellent depth at the position even before you consider incoming freshmen. Another possible wild card at corner is Christian Bryant, who played at the Star spot last year in the absence of Tyler Moeller, but who could see the field at either cornerback or safety if the coaches feel he is one of their four or five best DB’s, a distinct possibility.

Orhian Johnson struggled at times last year in his first full year of playing time at safety, but he was about the only OSU safety to stay on the field all season, and his experience should serve the Buckeyes well for the next two years. OJ (#19 at right) has reportedly added size and speed this past offseason after contributing 50 tackles, one interception and two forced fumbles in 2010.

OJohnson5The junior from Miami told reporters at the Big Ten Media Days this week that he expects junior C.J. Barnett to be the other starter at safety when the season starts on September 3rd. Barnett won the starting job last fall, but suffered a knee injury in the second game and was lost for the season. In addition to Barnett, the Bucks would eventually lose their top two Star backs (Moeller and Bryant) as well as backup safety Corey Brown to injury. With all of those players back at 100% this fall, the OSU safety situation looks much more positive.


At cornerback, the 4-man rotation listed above will see the majority of the playing time, but the Bucks will have Adam Griffin and two promising freshmen in reserve. Senior Donnie Evege, who was a strong special teams performer last season, suffered a knee injury this spring that required surgery, and he will miss the entire 2011 season.

Backing up at safety, look for redshirt sophomores Jamie Wood and Corey Brown to be the first guys off the bench, and upperclassmen Nate Oliver and Zach Domicone could also see the field on special teams. Chad Hagan is another young safety looking to get his first playing time as a Buckeye.


Doran Grant, the cornerback from Akron SVSM, is the blue-chipper in this strong group of incoming freshman DB’s. Rated among the top five defensive backs in the country by every scouting service, the 5’11”, 180 lb. Grant has a chance to jump into the cornerback rotation with a strong fall camp. DerJuan Gambrell (Scout’s #22 CB) is an athletic, rangy corner from Toledo Rogers who looks like a redshirt candidate, given the numbers ahead of him.

The Buckeyes brought in two big, intelligent, hard-hitting safeties in this class in Ron Tanner and Jeremy Cash. Cash enrolled early and made a splash in the spring scrimmages with solid tackling and good instincts. It would not be a surprise to see him on the field early, at least on special teams.


This 2011 Buckeye defensive unit shapes up once again as one of the best in the Big Ten, and it’s potentially capable of the high national ranking that many of its predecessors have achieved. They are young....but the constant is Heacock’s steady hand at the controls. It’s a given that they’ll need to perform up to expectations in order to see the team through some early growing pains on offense.


Loose Leaves

Your humble correspondent is suffering from a bad case of TFS (Tressel Fatigue Syndrome), but there were some minor developments in the OSU-NCAA case this past week that I should report, and some writing elsewhere that is worth linking.


OSU did Terrelle Pryor and his agent a favor by declaring the former quarterback ineligible for the entire 2011 season, thereby clearing the decks for Pryor to become eligible for the NFL supplemental draft. Pryor’s status had been up in the air, because although he had left the school, his official suspension was for just the first five games of the season, and no player with remaining college eligibility can participate in the supplemental draft.

While they were in the business of officially ridding themselves of Terrelle Pryor the football player, the school also banned him from campus athletic facilities for five years, while at the same time welcoming him back to its classroom facilities to continue work on his degree.

UPDATE 7/30: So far the strategy does not appeared to have worked for Pryor and his agent. For the moment he remains ineligible for the supplemental draft, at least until the NCAA gives the NFL something more official indicating that Pryor meets the requirements. Then there's the issue that the normal time for the supplemental has past, due to the NFL lockout....and the additional complication that Pryor might be the only player in the supplemental draft, and they'll have to decide if it's worth it to stage the thing just for him. Here's the latest ESPN story.


The decision to allow OSU’s suspended players to participate in the Sugar Bowl last January drew criticism from all over, and much of it fell on Jim Tressel. The casual college football fan wasn’t noticing at the time that the Big Ten office, the NCAA, the BCS officials, and even Bobby Petrino and the Arkansas program officials wanted the Buckeyes to be at full strength for the bowl game, and that the decision to allow the suspended Buckeyes to play was one they arrived at jointly, if misguidedly.

Now with the benefit of the freshly released transcript of Tressel’s Feb. 8, 2011 interview with NCAA officials, it becomes clear that of all the parties to the decision, Jim Tressel was probably the least enthusiastic about the idea of letting his players play in New Orleans. I thought Brandon Castel at The O-Zone did a great job of summarizing what Tressel had to say on that subject well before the news of his prior knowledge became public.


Aaron Torres joins the thin ranks of national commentators who are beginning to put the nature and scope of the OSU scandals into some sane perspective. His article is a breath of fresh air for OSU followers who have been fed a steady diet of self-righteous posturing for eight months from most national sports pundits.


And Tony Gerdeman hits it out of the park with his O-Zone piece on the herd mentality and lazy journalistic practices that led to a rather distorted view of the OSU scandals, and thus to the outrage last week when it was announced that Ohio State would avoid the NCAA’s most serious sanctions.


Simon13Gene Wojciechowski of ESPN wrote a good article this week on Luke Fickell after he spent some time with the new OSU coach at Big Ten Media Days in Chicago. Check out Woj’s video interview with ESPN’s Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg too. They talk about how Fickell appeared a little bit nervous and unsettled during his first exposure to the national media.

That article was also the source of what I thought was one of the best quotes I heard coming out of the Chicago meetings. Asked to comment on the state of the Ohio State program in the wake of this year’s scandals, Penn State’s Joe Paterno said:

"It isn't as if Jim's leaving the place in shambles."

More and more people are coming to that realization....some with disappointment...others with relief. One of the most repeated lines in Chicago this week was...”Ohio State is still Ohio State”

Glad we’ve got that cleared up.


(photo credits - Jim Davidson -



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