Silver Bullets Reflect On Tough Year

There's little doubting the 2011 Ohio State defense didn't perform at quite the same level as its recent predecessors, and a number of factors went into the team's struggles. However, there is hope for the future, starting with the upcoming Gator Bowl on Jan. 2 vs. Florida.

For the first time in his seven years as Ohio State's defensive coordinator, Jim Heacock coached a squad that didn't finish in the top six in the nation in scoring defense.

In fact, to some, giving up 20.8 points per game to finish 26th in the country basically qualified as an unmitigated disaster at Ohio State given the success of the previous six campaigns.

OK, that might be a bit of a stretch, but there's no denying that Buckeye fans were taken aback a little bit by this year's defense, which didn't quite measure up to the units that earned Heacock a sterling reputation around college football – not to mention the 2007 Broyles Award as the best assistant coach in the sport.

So what happened? Well, it's in many ways a simple answer – add together injuries, inexperience and a little ineptitude and the results are sure to go down. On the field, those things meant a spotty pass rush, occasional breakdowns in coverage and tackling issues that senior Tyler Moeller said had to leave the longtime assistant coach scratching his head.

"I don't think we've lost our mojo, but we've had a couple of tough games," Moeller said near the end of the season. "We've seen what we need to improve on – discipline, little things, staying in your gap … mainly, tackling. The way we're playing is probably driving Coach Heacock crazy."

On the contrary, Heacock – a Muskingum grad who arrived at Ohio State in 1996, spending his first nine years just as defensive line coach – said he enjoyed working with his young unit, which by the Michigan game included just a single senior in Moeller.

"I think we've got great kids," he said. "I really think they're outstanding young men. I think they're going to be an unbelievable group, but we're having fun. They practiced hard. They prepare hard. Attitude's unbelievably good. They work extremely hard. They watch film, prepare, do all those things that you want them do. So from that standpoint it's a very fun year for me because I know how much it means to them."

Still, the team was clearly young. Ohio State's usual starting lineup included only two returning starters from the 2010 season, and the team was without five seniors who graduated from last year's team who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors.

In all, five underclassmen were among the usual starting lineup, and three of the four starting juniors came into the season without staring experience. Add in the fact that many of the top reserves were freshmen and the team had trouble playing with the belief necessary to make plays.

"The word confidence is the word we keep coming back to," Heacock said. "We just don't have a real confident group right now. You're probably not going to when you have four or five freshmen out there and some young guys. When something goes wrong or it doesn't look real good at a particular time, they kind of panic a little bit. I think that's where if you had some of those guys we had last year, they would take care of it and be fine and everything would be all right.

"That's confidence, and swag, or whatever you want to call it. The question is what comes first, the confidence or playing good? I think we need to find ways to play better and when you do that you get a little more confidence."

Senior linebacker Andrew Sweat agreed with that assessment.

"I would say that's a factor," he said. "Just experience. You can know what you're doing and be able to make big plays, but there's so much of it that's poise. Poise is such a huge, huge deal in big games. When they hit a big play, if you're not poised and be able to recover for the next play that's detrimental for the defense.

Ohio State also lacked a true playmaking presence on the field, a la players like Brian Rolle and Kurt Coleman in past seasons. The Buckeyes finished 56th in the country in sacks, 76th in tackles for loss and forced 17 turnovers, a steep drop from past seasons and a mark that places 10th in the Big Ten.

"You gotta have five or six of those guys on defense," Heacock said. "You need more playmakers, guys who can make plays."

That's one way injuries hurt, as the Buckeyes lost one of their best defensive players after the first game when Leo defensive end Nate Williams went down with a knee injury. The Buckeyes had banked on having Williams on one end with Johnny Simon – who finished with a team-high seven sacks – on the other, which could have resulted in more pressure and more turnovers.

"Nate threw a wrench into things basically because of what his position was and what we were going to ask him to do, and what we thought we had," Heacock said. "All the offseason we're thinking we have Nate on one side, and he can be that drop guy, that Will Smith guy. Then you put Johnny on the other side and you're going to get pressure.

"Then all of a sudden Nate's not there and now we didn't really have … Solomon (Thomas) couldn't play and then the next two guys are both freshmen."

Still, there's hope the matchup with Florida will provide a jumping off point into the 2011 season. The Gators enter 72nd in the country in scoring at 25.6 points per game and are 102nd in yards per game.

Though Heacock will likely not be back on new head coach Urban Meyer's staff, there is hope for the future. The defense will be getting older next year, and players like Coleman in the past showed playmaking skill often comes with experience. The added year of time under the belts of players like Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant should give OSU the talent to make things happen.

In addition, Williams is expected to return and the addition of five-star defensive end Adolphus Washington should add to what could be a fearsome pass rush.

"They're not as good as we want to be right now, but some day, look out," Heacock said.

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