BSB Notebook: Changing Defensive Personnel

The regular season may be at the quarter pole, but Ohio State's defensive coaches are still in search of their best combinations of players. Rather than trying to find their top 11 players, they might turn to a variety of special packages as the season wears on.

Jim Heacock is one of those famously fretful coaches, never comfortable he has prepared his Ohio State defenses to be at their best on any given Saturday until he sees the ball go in the air and the pads start popping.

The veteran leader has obviously done a lot of things correctly over the years considering the Buckeyes have never finished lower than sixth in the nation in points allowed since he became coordinator in 2005, but he sounds genuinely concerned early this season as the search continues for the best formula for stopping opponents in 2011.

A quarter of the way into the campaign, Heacock and head coach Luke Fickell are still trying to figure out how to best use the players they have at their disposal.

"We've got to continue to develop some depth up front and some depth at the linebacker spot," Heacock said. "I think it's a work in progress. We've made progress. I feel like we're getting better and better but I think we would all agree we've got to continue to improve as the season goes on."

The staff has always rotated defensive linemen liberally, but this year they are open to the idea of changing up the linebackers as well.

When asked if fans could see a lineup including both senior Andrew Sweat and true freshman Ryan Shazier – both of whom generally play Will linebacker – on the field at the same time, Heacock replied, "You could potentially see all kinds of things because really we've got a lot of different players playing a lot of different positions."

Shazier had five tackles in part-time action last week, and his three tackles for loss are the third-most on the team despite seeing the field less than Sweat and fellow linebacker Storm Klein (one tackles for loss that was a sack) and Etienne Sabino (team-best 4.5 TFLs, including two sacks).

"Shazier may be a nickel guy, He could be in there with Andrew Sweat, which would give you some pretty good speed on the field for your nickel," Heacock said. "We're really just trying to identify who can make plays and provide production. Who can get on the field and what they're best at."

Wishing For Williams
The rearranging of personnel is also related to the ongoing absence of Nathan Williams, a senior who has missed the past three games after having arthroscopic knee surgery.

Not only do they miss the 6-3, 260-pounder for his talent, they are hurting without his versatility. As the Leo defensive end in the 4-3 base defense, Williams was adept at rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. He could remain on the field and play a rush linebacker position when the team went to its dime package.

With would-be No. 2 Leo Solomon Thomas suspended for the first five games, the Buckeyes have tried a couple of different solutions.

The most-used option has seen Johnny Simon, who normally would swing between tackle and strong-side end, move to Leo. He is quick enough to play on the edge, but he does not have the same coverage skills as Williams. Playing him at Leo takes away some of his strengths, too.

"John Simon is a warrior," Heacock said. "We ask him to go out there and play that position because we need some experience and someone out there who knows what he's doing to take the heat of these two freshmen and like Johnny always does, he goes out there and plays unbelievable. He's doing a good job there, but the quicker we can bring those younger guys along, the quicker we can send him back down inside and let him do what he likes to do, what he does best. It's tough any time you lose somebody who can get pressure off the edge and make a couple guys block him."

The two youngsters to whom Heacock referred are redshirt freshman J.T. Moore and true freshman Steve Miller. Moore has seven tackles, including one for a loss, and has seen much more playing time to this point than Miller, who has only one stop, but Heacock is happy with how both are coming along.

"I think J.T.'s getting better and Steve Miller's had a really good week of practice and you'll probably see more and more of him," Heacock said.

‘Sam' He Is?
Williams' injury also meant a position that has not really been filled since 2009 re-opened. Although they did not show it during open practices and scrimmages during the first few weeks of preseason camp, the staff gave Williams a look at Sam linebacker. He started there in the season opener against Akron but has not played since.

There are many similarities between his old position (Leo) and his potential new one, but the latter involves him playing in space more and often matching up with a tight end.

Austin Spitler handled it well in 2009, but no one really fit the bill last season. Sweat tried his hand but it is a better fit at Will or in the middle. Sabino was there at the start of preseason camp this year but subsequently moved back to the middle, where he alternated with Klein last week when the Buckeyes did not use a Sam linebacker because they played nickel or dime every snap.

They could continue to play without a Sam, which is replaced by the Star position when they go to nickel or dime, but Fickell revealed earlier this week there is a new candidate for playing time at Sam: true freshman Curtis Grant.

"Curtis is picking it up a little bit more," Fickell said. "He hasn't been as big of a special teams guy as we need, but the next couple weeks, I think he's going to have a lot more opportunities, maybe playing some Sam this week a well as in the future."

Grant began the year learning to play Mike linebacker but could not crack the two-deep. He admitted during preseason camp he was not picking up the defense as quickly as he would have liked, and Fickell said the staff might wish it had moved him to Sam earlier than it did.

"But you've got to learn how to play football, you have to learn how to play the system," Fickell said. "We'll let those guys battle it out and see who is best."

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