Heacock Looking For His Top 22 On 'D'

Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has a simple goal this spring. He wants to use 14 practices and the spring game to determine who are the best 22 football players on the team. Then he'll have all summer to figure out how to scheme around them.

"As a defensive staff we sit down and look at those guys, see how many are linebackers, how many are linemen, how many are secondary, and then we try to figure out what our best personnel grouping is," Heacock said. "Are you better off in a nickel scheme? You just try to see how they fit into your scheme and then kind of veer towards what they can do best. I think spring ball is critical to see who can get a lot of reps and see who can make plays."

With seven starters lost to graduation, there is plenty of work to do on defense this spring in Columbus, but Heacock is upbeat about the opportunity that provides.

Rather than fret about the youth he figures to see everywhere around him on the practice field, Heacock said he expects a fun 15 days of work.

"These are the fun ones because you have no idea who's going to step up," he said. "The competition is going to be unbelievable. Nobody's going to be able to coast through practice.

"You've got a bunch of young guys who are going to be out there ready every day. They're going to be competitive, and it's going to be fun. I really enjoy this type of atmosphere. It's going to be exciting."

The most excitement may come in the secondary, where three multiyear starters must be replaced and few with much experience are available.

Orhian Johnson had an up-and-down first season as a sophomore starter in 2010, but he will be looking to build on what he learned.

Perhaps the leading candidate to join him in the starting lineup is the man he replaced, C.J. Barnett, who is recovering from knee surgery but was able to take part in all of the team's 6 a.m. workouts during winter conditioning.

One of the outgoing veterans told reporters to watch out for sophomore Jamie Wood, and senior Nate Oliver is sure to want to put his best foot forward in his final spring in Columbus.

The coaching staff is likely to want to try to find a spot for Christian Bryant, a sophomore who began last season as a cornerback before moving to star in the team's nickel defense, and junior Zach Domicone along with early enrollees Jeremy Cash and Ron Tanner will want to make an impact as well.

Junior Travis Howard and sophomore Dominic Clarke look like the first to get cracks at filling the two vacant starting spots at cornerback, but two players who spent all of last season on the sideline could earn major playing time as well in Florida State transfer Dionte Allen and redshirt freshman Bradley Roby. Senior Donnie Evege may have something to say about who plays where when all is said and done, too, after he missed nine games with an elbow injury last season.

Linebacker could be a free for all with juniors Etienne Sabino, Jonathan Newsome, Storm Klein and Jordan Whiting, sophomore Dorian Bell, redshirt freshman Scott McVey and true freshman Ryan Shazier all hungry for playing time next to returning starter Andrew Sweat.

Linebackers coach Luke Fickell has typically tried to find the best three players and fit them into spots, so several possibilities exist here.

Finally, there's the defensive line.

Heacock's position group could be the deepest, a good thing because he is well-known to believe the line is the most critical part of a defense.

Junior Garrett Goebel and sophomores Johnathan Hankins, who was slowed during offseason work by an undisclosed injury, and Adam Bellamy look to be the top candidates to move to the top of the rotation alongside returning starters Nathan Williams and John Simon. Redshirt freshman Darryl Baldwin and true freshman Jake Hale will hope to make some noise as well, but sophomore Melvin Fellows' availability is uncertain as he has continued to fight knee problems throughout his time in Columbus.

Also look for redshirt freshmen J.T. Moore and David Durham to make a move for playing time behind Williams at Leo defensive end because his 2010 backup, Solomon Thomas, faces a five-game suspension to open the 2011 campaign.

And what about the scheme? That might be determined based on a player who doesn't do a lot this spring.

Heacock would be hard-pressed to find anyone who fits the basic definition of football player better than Tyler Moeller, a senior who figures to take it slow as he recovers from pectoral surgery but is expected to be 100 percent by the fall.

With Moeller manning the star position, a hybrid linebacker/safety role, Ohio State tended to play more of its 4-2-5 nickel defense than its 4-3-4 base in the first month of last season even in non-passing situations and against power running sets.

That could be the case again assuming he returns to his old self.

"If you've got 11 players who are definitely your best players, those are guys you want on the field all the time," Heacock said. "If you've got 12 players that are all pretty equal, now you can sub or maybe play more nickel. We felt like Tyler proved in camp he was one of our best 11 players. He's a great blitzer, which we felt like we needed and how can you take a guy like that off the field? That's what it comes down to."

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