After finishing first or second in the Big Ten in scoring defense every season from 2005-2010, the 2011 version checked in at sixth. The 21.0 points per game were the most since 1999, when the Buckeyes gave up 23.9 while posting their last non-winning season until this one. That year they finished 48th in the nation in points allowed, the last time Ohio State failed to finish in the top 20 in that category until 2012, when they checked in at No. 27.
Overall, Ohio State allowed 323.5 yards per contest, the worst since giving up 332.0 in 2004. That was the last time a Buckeye defense allowed more than 300 yards per game.
The good news this spring is youth will not be an issue.
Only two players who started all season – linebacker Andrew Sweat and nickel back/Star Tyler Moeller, who in effect was the team's third linebacker despite being listed as a safety – used up their eligibility.
While many of the faces will be familiar to each other, they will be new to half of the defensive coaching staff after new head coach Urban Meyer brought in Everett Withers and Bill Sheridan to join holdovers Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel on the sidelines.
It remains to be seen how Fickell, who will serve as defensive coordinator this season after leading as head coach in 2011, might alter the strategies to mold his own vision or what impact the addition of Withers and Sheridan could add, so we will start off with the assumption many of the same principles will remain until we hear otherwise.
(Note: More players could enroll in time for spring quarter and will be added when they are confirmed officially.)
Seniors: Nathan Williams*, Garrett Goebel, John Simon; Juniors: Johnathan Hankins, Adam Bellamy; Sophomores: Darryl Baldwin, Michael Bennett, Joel Hale, Steve Miller, J.T. Moore; Redshirt freshmen: Chase Farris, Kenny Hayes.
Williams was expected to be a pillar of the defense last season but tore up his knee early in the season and played only one game. He is not expected to be ready to go for spring ball, leaving plenty of time available for youngsters Moore and Miller to get work at the "Leo" defensive end position.
Simon filled that spot last year, but look for him to switch back to his more natural strong end (5-technique) with a greater emphasis being placed on speed as the team moves forward. There is a log jam at that spot with Bellamy, Bennett, Hayes and Farris also available to play there or slide inside to the tackle (3-technique) along with 2011 breakout star Hankins, Hale and Baldwin. Goebel was the No. 1 nose guard last season and returns to fill that role, but the defensive line spots were mostly interchangeable in recent years and that could continue to be the case.
There are rumblings Baldwin could be converted to offensive line, a move that would make sense given the depth defense and lack thereof on the other side of the ball, but he showed surprising quickness in brief stints on the field early in 2011.
After a disappointing season for this group, look for the race for reps to be wide open. This is another area where strategic changes could alter the makeup of the lineup. The team went away from using a Sam linebacker last year because of ineffectiveness, so it remains to be seen how that will be dealt with. The front-runner for the spot would seem to be Grant, who moved there during the season and received some positive reviews from Fickell. Shazier presumably slides into the No. 1 spot on the weak side with Sabino and Klein again battling for time in the middle. Perry presents an interesting wild card as he brings the size to play Sam or Mike, while questions about the health of Hagan and Crowell linger.
Howard and Roby return as starters, and they headline a group that is dangerously thin after two players were booted from the team for getting into scrapes with the law. Roby will look to build off a standout redshirt-freshman campaign while Howard hopes to prepare for one last chance at becoming an impact player. Grant is a highly touted prospect who rose up the depth chart steadily after arriving last fall, but Griffin has rarely seen the field so far.
This position is not lacking for depth or experience, but it still has plenty of question marks. Johnson and Domicone could be limited by their continued recovery from late-season knee injuries. Bryant and Barnett return after both had up-and-down sophomore seasons. Talent is not an issue with either, but both had issues with tackling and pursuit angles at times throughout the year.
Brown and Wood both have the ability to thrust themselves into the conversation for playing time with strong springs, as does Tanner, who made a strong impression last spring when a rash of injuries forced him into extra reps.
Whether the team continues to use the same nickel defense with a hybrid linebacker/safety as the "Star" remains to be seen as well. If so, Bryant would appear to be the leading candidate for the role as he has played there extensively in his first two seasons in scarlet and gray.