In breaking down the spring performances for the Buckeyes, it might be helpful to look not only at the strengths of this team but also the weaknesses, the opportunities the Buckeyes might exploit, and the possible threats that could derail each unit (and ultimately the team).
Strength - The strength of this year's line is clearly in the interior. With Quinn Pitcock, David Patterson, Marcus Green, and Sian Cotton really showing their wares, this is the best DT unit in the Big Ten. Arguably, it is one of the top five inside units in the country. Toss in Brandon Maupin, the incoming Nader Abdallah, and possibly situational inside play by Joel Penton, and I expect to see some serious hurting by offensive guards and centers in the fourth quarter. Though Patterson and Pitcock's talents are both known, keep an eye on Sian Cotton. He moves around in the interior with the quickness of a linebacker. He could easily add another 35 lbs and not lose that advantage.
Weakness - Defensive End lacks a serious speedster to come off the end and replace Will Smith. Granted, guys like Smith don't grow on every tree, but this could hurt in a big way. Fraser is a solid player at his DE slot, but he has yet to show the speed or consistency necessary to disrupt plays on a regular basis. Someone out of the trio of Mike Kudla, Jay Richardson, and Marcel Frost has the opportunity to step up; this will be their long awaited chance to make their mark. If they cannot, it does not bode well for the position.
Threat - Youth. Ohio State is very young inside and out. Teams will seek to take advantage of that. Delays, reverses, screens – these are all misdirection plays that could go for big yardage if a young, aggressive line forgets to play their responsibilities.
Opportunity – I see several opportunities for the Ohio State defense. First, the Buckeyes have the bodies up front to stuff the run (again). If they can make opposing offenses one dimensional, they can probably power the Buckeyes to at least 8 wins on defense alone. Second (and dealing with personnel), the coaches have enough bodies to experiment. They could overload the line with a foursome of Fraser, Pitcock, Cotton, and Patterson. I would love to see the offensive line that could block those four for more than three seconds. Add a blitzing linebacker like Carpenter, Matthews or D'Andrea, and someone is almost guaranteed to have a straight shot at the opposing QB. Finally, the coaches have the opportunity to rotate defensive linemen as in past years. By the fourth quarter, I (once again) cannot envision an offensive line not being worn down with the kind of athletes Ohio State can throw at them.
Strength - Where do you start? This position not only has depth, it has the versatility to rotate players for situational downs. Need to stop the run? Put in Anthony Schlegel, A.J. Hawk, and Bobby Carpenter. Need pure speed and the ability to cover short passes to ensure a team does not convert third and long? Put in Carpenter, Mike D'Andrea, and Thomas Matthews. In the next two years, I fully expect to see as many as 5 current players from Ohio State drafted at this position.
Weakness – There just aren't enough slots on the field. Matthews is a senior and needs playing time. D'Andrea has the athleticism for OLB, but he is positioned at MLB – behind Schlegel. Even the newest addition, Marcus Freeman, was showcasing his wares in the spring. How do you get them all on the field? I am sure the coaches are going to tinker with the possibilities, but you can only do so much.
Opportunity - With the glut of bodies at linebacker this year, I am left wondering if Carpenter could not add 10-15 lbs and drop down to defensive end for a season. He is an NFL player at linebacker, but he shows the speed, quickness, and moves to consistently get to the quarterback when rushing the passer. Just ask Ell Roberson who was his worst nightmare during the Fiesta Bowl and I am betting he will let you know pretty quickly it was one blitzing Bobby Carpenter. Being a great linebacker might get you drafted in the first day, but being a fantastic defensive end will get you picked in the top 20 selections of the NFL draft. I am left wondering what the defense might look like with a 265 lb Carpenter coming off the edge and a linebacking corps of Matthews/D'Andrea, Schlegel, and Hawk… At the very least, the Buckeyes have a chance to play a modified 3-4. Put Patterson, Pitcock, and Fraser (or Cotton) up front and then play cat and mouse with any 4 linebackers. The offense likely won't know what (or who) is coming (or if they are coming) until it is too late.
Threat – Schlegel or D'Andrea must step up. For his part, Schlegel must learn more about defending passing offenses; both he and the coaches indicated this spring that he has work to do in that area. D'Andrea must become more than just a great athlete in case of injury to Schlegel. Ohio State cannot afford another season with weakness up the middle. Both losses in 2003 were ones in which teams ran right at the Buckeye middle linebacker successfully.
Strength – Safety. Despite losing Donnie Nickey, Will Allen, and Michael Doss to the NFL over just the past two seasons, this team still has serious talent with Donte Whitner, Nate Salley and Brandon Mitchell.
Weakness – Last season the Buckeye safeties looked too intent on laying a fantastic hit on the opposition. Tackling is what defense is about. The cornerbacks must be prepared. With Chris Gamble no longer manning the other cornerback position, Dustin Fox will likely be playing the top receivers on opposing offenses. He will have to put his play in a new gear to be successful. E.J. Underwood/Ted Ginn/Ashton Youboty also better be ready. There were no tears shed by opposing coaches when Gamble announced he was leaving to go pro a year early, and offenses are going to test the new corners. Any weaknesses will be exploited. You can count on it.
Opportunity – Even with the loss of Will Allen and Gamble, the Ohio State secondary has a chance to be an improved unit. Whether it was injury or complacence, Gamble never seemed to show the brilliance he was capable of last season aside from the Washington opener and the Fiesta showdown against Kansas State. If Underwood can stay healthy and play the football (as he has in the last two spring games), he has a chance to be every bit as good if not better than his predecessor. I know that is a tremendous statement, but I believe it to be true. Where Gamble was a project at corner, Underwood has been refining his skills for the last three years at Ohio State and as a high school position player before that. Incoming recruit Ted Ginn, Jr. has all the measurables and abilities to be the next great corner in a line of NFL players OSU has turned out. He could be an outstanding nickel – assuming he can beat out Ashton Youboty and Brandon Mitchell, both fine players in their own right.
Threat – Will Allen might have been the forgotten man in some respects. A leader, a playmaker, and a talented safety – Allen seemingly saved more games than Rollie Fingers. Someone will have to step up to replace his production. Fox and his counterpart will be tested. With the Buckeye front seven one of the deepest and most talented groups in the nation, teams will see if they can go vertical. Cincinnati, NC State, Wisconsin, and Michigan all have the talent and coaching to beat the Buckeyes through the air.
Overall, I think this defense has the potential to be the best in the Big Ten and probably a top five unit in the nation. Fans (and OSU coaches) cannot help but love what they see at every position. Though I know it won't happen, I would donate a pinky finger to see:
CB – Youboty/Ginn and Underwood
S – Fox and Salley
LB – Hawk, Schlegel, and D'Andrea/Matthews
Dline – Fraser/Richardson, Patterson/Cotton, Pitcock/Green, and Carpenter/Kudla
The speed and athleticism of that lineup (assuming the players could master their responsibilities) would be unmatched at least in the Big Ten and possibly in all of college football. The secondary would not only be great in coverage but also incredibly physical with Fox and Salley manning the safety positions. The linebackers would track sideline to sideline defending the pass almost equally as proficient as the run. While offensive lines concentrated on stopping Patterson, Fraser, and Pitcock, Carpenter could act much like Will Smith – rushing or dropping into coverage. You would hear the same things teams said in 2002 – "We knew they were good defensively, but we had no idea how fast they were. Film just cannot prepare you for that…"
Strength – Obviously placekicker Mike Nugent is one of the top five kickers in all of college football. He is simply clutch. If the longsnapper and holder place the ball correctly, teams will find that Nugent's range continues to increase. This spring Mike Nugent put on a show for media, nailing some long-range bombs of over 50 yards. A second area of strength would have to be defending against kick and punt returns. The Buckeyes have excelled at not allowing large chunks of yardage to the opposition over the last 3 seasons. 2004 looks to be no exception to the rule. This team is stocked with linebackers and defensive backs who can and will play special teams.
Weakness – Punting. This has a potential to be a horrendous nightmare for the Buckeyes. The Spring Game was just a harbinger of what is to come if something does not change. Michigan's kicking woes probably cost them four wins over the last two seasons. Ohio State's kicking prowess likely won them as many if not more. Buckeye fans will discover the world of hurt suffered by the Maize and Blue if one of the trio of Kyle Turano, A.J. Trapasso, or Josh Huston do not step up and start nailing consistent bombs ala Andy Groom and B.J. Sander.
Opportunity – The Ohio State return game has been woeful since Nate Clements departed for the NFL. This season, the Buckeyes appear to have some bona fide talent at the returner position. Ashton Youboty is a north-south returner who broke off large chunks of yardage in the spring scrimmages. Santonio Holmes just finds room to maneuver and can break a long return at any time. Ted Ginn, Jr. is said to be a fantastic player on special teams returns.
Threat – There are two dark stormclouds on this horizon. If none of the punters step up, it could be a nightmare for the Buckeyes. Blocks, shanks, and poor hang time can be turned into six points for the opposition in literally seconds. The other danger is fumbles by the returners. Ginn Jr.'s, returns were incredible at the Army game in San Antonio, but his lack of great ball security was troublesome. Santonio Holmes' fumble (though controversial to say the least) against N.C. State helped them get back into the football game. Turnovers on special team returns will hand you a loss more quickly than can be imagined.
Next week: The offense