Yes, the Buckeyes lost seven starters from its 2010 squad but they did not appear to miss a step in its Sept. 3 season opening victory against Akron. Ohio State held the Zips to 90 yards of total offense en route to a 42-0 shutout. The players that stepped into the starting line did not look out of place, nor did the players who saw collegiate action for the first time.
"We've been building (confidence) since spring ball and then through the fall camp," senior linebacker Andrew Sweat said. "I think everyone's flying around. We talk about doing our one-eleventh and doing your job, but I think even when guys were out of position they made up with it by playing fast. You watch the film and you have 11 guys running to the ball."
Sweat was a rare returning starter, but even he saw some change going into the 2011 season. He slid from strongside linebacker to the weak side. Two new starters – junior Etienne Sabino and sophomore Storm Klein – joined him on the field against Akron at middle linebacker against Akron, with defensive end/Leo Nathan Williams occasionally sliding into the strongside linebacker position.
"I think Nathan is obviously one of our best defenders," Sweat said. "He has a multitude of positions. He can play anything. I think you can put Nathan at nose tackle. You can put him anywhere. He'll make plays.
"I think the coaches are just trying to get him in a position to make as many plays as he can and help our defense as much as he can."
The linebackers weren't the only position that saw some new faces play well. Redshirt freshman Bradley Roby and sophomore Dominic Clarke made their first starts and did their parts in holding Akron to 55 passing yards. Only five Zips caught passes, with only one – running back Jawon Chisholm – catching more than one ball.
Clarke's start was unexpected leading up to the game. Clarke and Roby battled for a starting job across the field from junior Travis Howard. Two days before the season kicked off, however, Howard was suspended for the season opener for a minor rules violation. That pushed Clarke into an important role for the second straight game. He ended up having to play ample minutes in Ohio State's Sugar Bowl win against Arkansas.
"He got an opportunity last Saturday and took advantage of it," Sweat said.
The secondary benefitted from the returns of safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett and star/nickel back Tyler Moeller. All three suffered season-ending injuries during the 2010 campaign. Barnett started at one of the safety spots, while Bryant split time with returning starting safety Orhian Johnson. Moeller was back at his usual spot and played often in OSU's nickel package.
The defensive line welcomed new starters at nose tackle and right tackle in junior Garrett Goebel and sophomore Jonathan Hankins. The duo combined for a tackle for loss in the win.
In addition to the new starters, the OSU defense saw many freshmen see the field. Defensive linemen Michael Bennett, Joel Hale and Steve Miller; linebackers Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant; and cornerback Doran Grant all made their collegiate debuts. Shazier and Doran Grant made three tackles apiece. They both also notched a sack, as did Bennett.
"Sometimes we go through camp and you're like, ‘I'm not sure how good this guy is or how he's going to show out in front of 106,000 (people),' " Fickell said of the freshmen. "But you forget he's been going against great people all across him in camp. I think that was the first time for them to show a little bit and all of a sudden they're not going against Mike Adams or somebody like that."
"It was a lot of guys first time out there," Barnett said. "Playing in front of all of our fans is always a tough thing to do. We just learned (last week) that everybody can play. They all came here because they can play and they proved it."
Time will tell whether Ohio State's defense can continue to play well, but the Buckeyes did get off to a good start. The next task for the Silver Bullets should be far more difficult than the challenge posed by Akron. The Zips were coming off a 1-11 season. Toledo was a bowl team in 2010 and are the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference.
The Rockets had little trouble in its opener, a 58-22 victory against Division I-AA New Hampshire on Sept. 1. Quarterbacks Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens threw five touchdown passes, and the offense finished with 591 total yards.
"It means a lot to have a shutout in the first week or any game," backup linebacker Nate Oliver said. "It tells a lot about a defense, but you have to take what we did last week and just improve on it and get better. … We didn't play a perfect game. We have to keep making improvements."