BSB's Take: Defensive Improvement

Our roundtable breakdown of the 2014 season continues on today with a look at the Ohio State defense. We all agree that there will be improvement for the Buckeyes in 2014 -- things couldn't get worse, right? -- but just how much there will be is open to debate.

One day after tackling the offense, Team BSB moves on to discuss how an Ohio State defense that struggled mightily can improve in 2014.

Just like yesterday, our panel includes BSB writers Ryan Ginn, Jeff Svoboda and Marcus Hartman.

PART I: Offense

Ohio State was 110th in the nation last year in passing yards allowed. Where do they finish this year?
Ryan: If everything hits right and there’s no obvious weakness like there was last year after Christian Bryant broke his leg, I think the secondary finishes about 50 yards better in passing yards allowed than last year. That would put them in the top 30 nationally based on last year’s numbers. One thing to watch for, though – passing yards allowed doesn’t factor in how many attempts a defense faces. With that front four and an inexperienced (but talented) secondary, I think Ohio State will once again face significantly more passes than rushes, which is why the passing yards allowed total won’t be as good as it could be.

Jeff: I think it's gonna be pretty high, but I'm not sure where to fall here. Top 15? Top 20? Top 30? I just remember when Greg Mattison arrived in Ann Arbor and took Michigan's defense from one of the worst in the country to one of the best in one fell swoop, and I think the same can happen with the pass defense at OSU. It's impossible to put in context what a train wreck the defense was by the end of last year, and the players and coaches have talked about how little communication there was and how frustrating the scheme was a season ago. It's not like there's not talent here, so improving those aspects will result in a big leap forward.

Marcus: The players really seem to be taking to the new scheme, and playing Navy should give a nice boost to the numbers since the Midshipmen don’t throw the ball much. Youth could prevent the Ohio State secondary from being elite this year, but a significant improvement can reasonably be expected. Let’s say 40th, a number that allows for some breakdowns from time to time and acknowledges facing potentially powerful passing attacks from Cincinnati, Maryland, Penn State, Michigan State, Indiana and even Michigan.

What do you feel is the biggest difference in the defense now that Chris Ash and Larry Johnson have been brought in?
Ryan: If players and coaches are to be believed, it’s the communication – but the way they’ve portrayed it, the problem was so bad that it was going to have to be fixed no matter who was brought in. One thing I’ve noticed from both is that they seem interested in testing the depth of their units. Johnson has said he’ll play more players in the rotation than Mike Vrabel did. While I expect sophomores Tyvis Powell and Vonn Bell to start at safety, it also seems like redshirt freshman Cam Burrows and true freshman Erick Smith will also find their way onto the field.

Jeff: I think it's identity. The only time the Buckeye defense had an identity on defense in the two years of the Meyer era was the last few games of 2012 when Zach Boren moved over to defense. If you don't have a style you believe in, it's simply hard to excel, and now I think the Buckeyes know exactly what they are doing on the defensive side of the ball. Not only that but the players enjoy playing that specific style, so I think you're going to see a group with much more swagger and self-belief in 2014.

Marcus: Without a doubt it is the more aggressive mind-set. There is more change in Ash’s secondary than Johnson’s line, but everyone looks like they are comfortable playing more downhill. They are going to make teams uncomfortable from the snap. Regardless of how effective it is, it should look a lot different than it has in the past as cornerbacks crowd receivers and safeties look to get involved against the running game.

Is the linebacking corps ready for a jump forward?
Ryan: This is the area in which I’m not completely sold yet. I do believe that the returning players are improved and I have a good feeling about Curtis Grant this year. With that being said, Ryan Shazier was really good. It’s a lot to ask for the linebackers to replace a player of that caliber and get better. I’m optimistic about the long-term future at this position with all the young talent, but I’m not ready to say they’re better at this moment.

Jeff: I'm taking a cautious outlook here. I think the group will be fine, as I think the three players they're gonna start in Perry, Grant and Lee can get the job done. I think Perry is ready for a breakout year -- simply put, he's a man now -- and Grant will be fine in the middle, especially against strong running teams. Lee is a more of a wild card given his inexperience but I like what he brings to the table as a more physical player who can hold up the edge. There's now some talented depth here, too. But will this be the traditional Ohio State linebacking corps that we're used to, especially after losing Mr. Everything, Ryan Shazier? We shall see.

Marcus: I think so. I like the move of Joshua Perry to the WLB. I think he’ll be better closer to the fray. I would not be surprised to see Curtis Grant turn in a strong senior season, either. He showed some signs early last year before getting injured, and he would not be the first guy to have the light come on as a senior. Ash has said Darron Lee and Chris Worley are a perfect fit for the walkout linebacker role, and they should give the Buckeyes a more stout presence against screens and outside runs than the nickel back did last season.

Is the defensive line as good as advertised after some offseason attrition?
Ryan: It’s still the best defensive line in the country, so I’ll say yes. The only thing that’s changed is a reduced margin for error with injuries and suspensions and the like. The second wave of players who will come in are as good as the top players at other schools, so I think it will be a long year for opposing linemen.

Jeff: I think yes, especially among the starters. You have four above-average bordering on great players in Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington there, and all four could pick up All-Big Ten honors at the end of the season. I'm particularly intrigued this year to see Bosa, who could be the No. 1 pick in next year's draft, and Washington (who could have a Bennett-esque breakout) this year. After that, I think Tommy Schutt could be in for a breakout, and guys like Steve Miller, Rashad Frazier and Tyquan Lewis deserve time. It would take a lot of injuries here for the Buckeyes not to feel pretty good about their talent and depth.

Marcus: I might be the contrarian here, but I am going to believe it when I see it. Without a doubt this line is going to be very athletic and deep, but its play declined late last season. The secondary play was so bad hardly anyone noticed, but there were some issues with getting creased. Playing more guys should help with the effectiveness of this group, but the early absence of Noah Spence could loom large since there is no one who has done much on the field ready to replace him. I’m sure it will be good, but the hype for this unit is almost out of control. I wonder about the physicality of the starters, but there are several good options if Johnson wants to give teams different looks.

Who is your choice for a breakout player?
Ryan: I know he’s a junior and has made a handful of starts already, but if he stays healthy, Adolphus Washington is going to become a household name sooner rather than later. Nothing against the player who was rated by Scout as a five-star prospect out of Cincinnati Taft, but his talented teammates will likely be the ones occupying the thoughts of opposing linemen. In a pick your poison type of situation, the sometimes overlooked Washington is too talented not to have massive success if he’s not facing double teams.

Jeff: He might not even start game one, but my gut is telling me to go with Vonn Bell. Anyone confident enough to come up with the Vonn Bell Academy thinks he can make plays, and I think there's not much doubt he has the talent and athleticism to be an elite safety at OSU, so why shouldn't it be his time? I think he pairs with Tyvis Powell to make one of the more consistent and explosive safety crews in the league.

Marcus: Vonn Bell should have plenty of chances to make plays against the run and the pass in the new scheme, and he has the confidence and the skill to handle all that is going to be thrust on him. He should have big numbers and plenty of highlight-reel plays like the one he made in the Orange Bowl last season.

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