SvoNotes: Buckeye D Among Heacock's Youngest

Ohio State fans are used to the Silver Bullet defense reloading more than rebuilding, but this will be one of the toughest challenges yet to face Jim Heacock, Luke Fickell and the rest of the OSU coaches. When it comes to starting experience, this group is among the lightest in recent years, so SvoNotes breaks down what that might mean for the Buckeyes.

When Luke Fickell talked to the media the day he was promoted to assistant head coach at Ohio State – one day before spring practice started for OSU – he said the defense he helps oversee was losing 1,100 production points.

What does that mean, specifically? Hard to say, since we don't know OSU's formula. But rest assured, it's a lot of players.

Seven players who ended the season as starters – defensive linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence and safety Jermale Hines – and took the first snap of the Sugar Bowl against Arkansas are gone.

On the other hand, only one player – defensive tackle/end Johnny Simon – returns after having started every game for the Silver Bullets in 2010.

What's left are a few gaping holes for the Buckeyes to fill, but just how hard will it be for defensive coordinator Jim Heacock, Fickell and the like to do so? Well, it will definitely be more difficult than in recent seasons.

The returning players on the Ohio State defense made 53 starts a season ago. Given that there were 143 total starts throughout the year on defense, the Buckeyes lost 62.9 percent of their starting group from a season ago, by far one of the highest percentages of the Heacock era.

A year ago, Ohio State was in relatively good shape despite losing some key contributors, especially along the defensive line. The Buckeyes returned 75 starts, meaning only 45.5 percent of the defense was lost to turnover.

The two seasons before that, there were few questions about the Ohio State defense given the players coming back. Led by a nearly intact secondary and lots of experienced players up front, the 2009 team returned 94 starts from the year before, meaning only 34.3 percent of the defense had to be replaced.

Meanwhile, the 2008 team had the luxury of strong returning players at nearly every position, including stars James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Malcolm Jenkins. That defense returned a whopping 82.5 of its starts from the season before, and in fact, that group had made a combined 59 starts as a team two years prior in 2006 – more than this year's team has from 2010 back.

In 2007, OSU had some solid returning players too from a team that made the national championship game. That squad lost 47.6 of its starters from the year before, meaning more than half of that defense was on its way back.

In fact, the only team that really compares to the 2011 squad came exactly five years ago. That season, Heacock was tasked with replacing 78.0 percent of the starts from the dominating 2005 defense that made the Fiesta Bowl and put in solid performances against excellent offenses such as those of Texas, Michigan State and Notre Dame.

That's the only defense Heacock has had that was worse off from an experience standpoint coming into a season. In fact, the 2010, '09 and '08 defenses each welcomed back enough three-year starters each campaign to have been returning more than 40 starts from two or more seasons prior.

That is not the case with this 2011 squad, as only two players have more than one year of starting experience under their belts – Nathan Williams made one start in 2009 and Tyler Moeller had a two. Everyone else earned their initial starting experience a season ago.

Atop that list was Simon, whose start against Marshall was his first. He went on to begin every game for the Buckeyes. Next up, safety Orhian Johnson made 11 starts a season ago at safety, followed by Williams and linebacker Andrew Sweat with 10 apiece.

That leaves seven starts left among four players. Defensive end Solomon Thomas leads the way with three, but he'll be out for the first five games of the season thanks to his part in the memorabilia scandal that has rocked OSU. Meanwhile, safety C.J. Barnett had two starts before season-ending knee surgery while star Christian Bryant and linebacker Jonathan Newsome each had one.

Of course, compared to the 2006 season, the Buckeyes return a lot of experience. That squad brought back only four players who had made starts in previous seasons – defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock (12 in 2005, 12 more in previous seasons), defensive lineman David Patterson (eight, four), Jenkins (six in '05) and safety Brandon Mitchell (three, five). That represented 29 starts coming back from 2005 of a possible 132 and 21 more starts in previous seasons.

"We haven't had a changeover like that since the ‘05 to ‘06 season," Fickell said. "Nobody really knew about James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins, Marcus Freeman."

Fickell was right, as those players quickly went on to become stars. Laurinaitis made 115 tackles, four sacks and five interceptions in 2006 to become an All-American. He would go on to become a three-year starter like Freeman, who was tied for second on the team with 71 tackles in '06. Jenkins made 55 stops that season to go with four picks on the way to becoming a three-year starter and first-round draft pick.

A number of other players stepped up that season as well. Little-used walk-on cornerback Antonio Smith became a first-team All-Big Ten player with 71 stops and 10 tackles for loss, while Mitchell made 60 tackles and two picks. Vernon Gholston made 15 TFL and 8½ sacks during his first extended playing time, and Pitcock was a standout tackle with eight sacks among his 39 stops.

In all, that team finished fifth in the country in scoring defense at 12.77 points per game allowed and 12th in total defense at 280.5 yards.

However, there is some debate about just how good that defense was. On the plus side, it allowed 10 or fewer points in nine of its first 11 games, including a shutout of Minnesota. On the negative, it allowed an average of 40.0 in the last two, surrendering 39 to Michigan and 41 to Florida, the two most talented teams on the schedule.

Two things helped that defense excel throughout much of the year. First, it forced 27 turnovers, including a Big Ten-high 21 interceptions. The Buckeyes had two or more turnovers in eight of its first 11 games and three or more in five of those. Conversely, Ohio State forced zero turnovers against the Wolverines and Gators.

In addition, that Buckeye group was helped a lot by its offense, which rarely gave opposing teams short fields to work with. In the first six games, while the Buckeyes were still getting their feet wet on defense, the OSU offense and special teams allowed only two drives to start on the wrong side of the 50, and the defense stiffened both times.

Contrast that to the end of the season in which Michigan got 10 second-half points to cut into OSU's lead thanks to drives that started deep in OSU territory, while Florida got a whopping 31 of its 41 points on drives that started on the wrong side of the 50.

Whether the offense – missing four key playmakers to start the 2011 campaign – will be able to help out the defense like that this time around is up for debate. In addition, turnovers are notoriously fickle, so leaning on those to support the young defense could be a tough strategy.

But the ultimate fate of the Buckeyes will depend on the players. Can Etienne Sabino step up after a redshirt year and control the middle line Laurinaitis? Will Sweat look as good as the starting weakside linebacker as he has in recent years? Can some combination of the ever-improving Travis Howard, Dominic Clarke and Dionte Allen hold down the vacated cornerback spots? Are Adam Bellamy, Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins ready for the increased playing time that's on the way? And can Moeller, one of the biggest impact players in the country, get through a season healthy?

In other words, the 2011 Silver Bullets will be talented, but they will be young, so just how good they will be remains to be seen.

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