Ohio State Spring Preview: Defense

It's officially spring practice time in Columbus, and if the Buckeyes are to contend for the Big Ten and national titles in 2013, the team must find some key replacements on the defensive side of the ball for some departed starters. BuckeyeSports.com takes a look at the situation.

Urban Meyer and the Ohio State football team are set to return to the practice field this afternoon. With that in mind, check out our position-by-position capsules of the Buckeye defense, which improved greatly as the 2012 season went on but now must replace six of seven starters on the defensive line and among the linebackers. (Some stats provided by CFBStats.com.)

Defensive Line
Starters returning: None

Depth: Junior Michael Bennett, sophomore Noah Spence, sophomore Adolphus Washington, junior Joel Hale, junior Steve Miller, junior J.T. Moore, sophomore Tommy Schutt, sophomore Chris Carter, redshirt freshman Se'Von Pittman, junior Rashad Frazier, true freshman Tyquan Lewis, true freshman Tracy Sprinkle

BSB postseason position grade: A-

Positive stat: In a league where teams tried to run the ball far more than pass it, Ohio State kept six of eight league opponents below 130 yards on the ground.

Negative stat: Departed starters Johnathan Hankins, Johnny Simon, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams combined for 182 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. The returning players on the line combined for 45 tackles, 6½ TFL and six sacks.

What they need this spring: Four starters to show up, obviously. The team loses four stalwarts on the line, and while there is plenty of talent on hand – Spencer, Washington and Schutt were all five-star players – there are a lot more unknowns than knowns at the moment. Washington and Spence were solid as third-down players last year but must mold themselves into players in all situations, while Schutt and Hale have shown promise in the middle.

On the spot: Bennett. There's a lot to like about Michael Bennett. He's big at 6-3, 285, but still quick and agile, and off the field he gets the job done. He had 17 tackles, five TFL and three sacks in spot duty in 2011, and he was targeted to be a starter at the beginning of fall camp last year. But then a groin injury came up in camp, and Bennett never seemed to have the power and quickness that marked his first season at OSU. If he's healthy, he needs to be the type of player he can be considering the youth on hand on the defensive line.

Worth watching: How the freshmen will do. Pittman looked like a beast in high school but was injured early in his time at OSU and fell behind his classmates who played last year, so this is his chance to get back in the mix. Meanwhile, the Buckeyes welcome in some early enrollees in Lewis and Sprinkle. Those two will have a chance to make a quick impression.

Starter returning: Junior Ryan Shazier

Depth: Junior Curtis Grant, sophomore Joshua Perry, sophomore Camren Williams, sophomore Luke Roberts, sophomore David Perkins, sophomore Jamal Marcus, redshirt freshman Joe Burger

BSB postseason position grade: B-

Positive stat: Ryan Shazier finished fifth in the Big Ten in tackles per game (9.4) while also placing third in total sacks (4.0) in conference play. He was the only player in the top 15 in the league in tackles with three sacks or more.

Negative stat: The linebackers were often among the culprits as the defense allowed 10 or more plays of 50 yards or more, a mark that was second from bottom in the Big Ten and 104th in the nation.

What they need this spring: Meyer and position coach Luke Fickell have talked a lot about how the middle linebacker has to step up as quarterback of the defense. Last year, Ohio State struggled finding that true middle man, with Storm Klein and Etienne Sabino splitting the spot until Zach Boren moved over and brought some calm to things. All three of those players are gone, so now OSU must have that next player step up. Grant and Williams seem like the two players most likely to take over; both must grow mentally and in their play in order to make the defense as effective as it can be.

On the spot: Grant. This seems like the spring that will make or break his time in Columbus. There's an open spot in the middle of the defense, and the one-time five-star prospect – who excited OSU fans greatly when he picked the Buckeyes on National Signing day in 2011 – is now an upperclassman. In other words, it is his time to shine. There's no doubt he's put in the work – a photo tweeted out of the linebackers the other day confirms he's jacked – but Grant's problems have often seemed to be mental. Now in his third season in the program, he has to cut loose and play.

Worth watching: How Perry develops. There's no doubt the Buckeyes have some talented players among the sophomore class, but Perry is certainly an intriguing member of the group. Listed at 6-4, 238 pounds, he has the size to be a prototypical strongside linebacker who can clog up passing lanes while being strong enough to take on offensive linemen at the point of attack. He's an intruding specimen.

Starter returning: Junior Bradley Roby

Depth: Junior Doran Grant, junior Adam Griffin, sophomore Armani Reeves, redshirt freshman Tyvis Powell, true freshman Eli Apple, true freshman Cameron Burrows

BSB postseason position grade: B- (all DBs)

Positive stat: Roby led the nation in passes defended per game with 1.73. He broke up 17 passes on the year, good for third in the country, while adding two interceptions.

Negative stat: The Buckeyes placed 11th in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per game (243.5) and sixth in passing efficiency defense, ceding 300 yards to three opponents.

What they need this spring: A running mate for Roby. Ohio State got a gift when the star Georgia native returned after what was an All-America caliber 2012 season. Travis Howard was better than average on the other side but now graduates, leaving a spot open. Ohio State returns just about every other major member of the secondary, but cornerback is a tough spot to play at the highest level. Auditions for the crucial position begin now.

On the spot: Grant. The Akron St. Vincent St. Mary product was fine in spot duty a season ago as Howard missed occasional time with injury, but now the junior looks like he's ticketed for starting duty. Grant has excellent athletic tools and long arms but, like many players stepping up after years of understudy action, must prove he's consistent enough to be put on the field at his position.

Worth watching: Just like at linebacker, the answer is how the freshmen do. There isn't a whole heck of a lot of depth here, so players like Powell, Apple and Burrows have a chance to make big gains in the spring. Powell was position coach Kerry Coombs' whipping boy last spring but is gifted athletically, while Apple and Burrows received plenty of praise on signing day. They can all play.

Starters returning: Fifth-year senior C.J. Barnett, senior Christian Bryant

Depth: Fifth-year senior Corey Brown, fifth-year senior Jamie Wood, sophomore Devan Bogard, sophomore Ron Tanner, sophomore Najee Murray

BSB postseason position grade: B- (all DBs)

Positive stat: Barnett and Bryant were impactful last season, combining for 127 tackles, three tackles for loss, three interceptions, 18 pass breakups, a fumble recovery and two forced fumbles.

Negative stat: Ohio State safeties Zach Domicone, Wood, Murray and Bogard each missed at least four games with injury in 2012.

What they need this spring: Leadership from the back end. There are only four scholarship seniors on the entire OSU defense (!), and all of them line up at safety. It is also the only position where every starter returns from a year ago. As a result, this has to be the most dependable spot on the field, which hasn't necessarily been true at times in the past two seasons. Bryant in particular is a fiery player and could end up being the spark plug of the defense if he is ready.

On the spot: Brown. The man known as "Pittsburgh" has had a tough time breaking into the lineup, having his ups and downs a season ago when he did get on the field before seeing much of his playing time go to senior Orhian Johnson. Now, Brown is in his final go-round, and he will have to battle with incoming five-star player Vonn Bell in camp. He can be an important part of the rotation but will have to be more sound in his game in spring to be a big part of the battle for the "Star" spot this fall.

Worth watching: How Wood responds this spring. He thought his career was over last season after continuing shoulder injuries, but Wood is going to give it another go this year. The Buckeyes need all the experienced players they can handle on the squad and playing well, and Wood has been solid on special teams in past seasons. If he's able to go, it's not just a good story, it's an important piece to the puzzle for the Buckeyes.

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