Recreating a Defense
As promised, at the risk of embarrassing myself, the following is a position by position description of how one might re-create the dominance of the 2002 defense.
What made the trio of Tim Anderson, Kenny Peterson, and David Thompson so dominant? Anderson understood leverage and hustled on every play. It wasn't unusual to see him making a tackle near the sideline. Peterson was a converted defensive end; his quickness upset the apple cart inside where guards and centers were unused to his speed. Thompson was just a large human being determined to get in the backfield after languishing on the bench.
The three who meet these criteria on next year's squad are David Patterson, Quinn Pitcock, and Sian Cotton. Pitcock plays the dirty role inside – not dirty as in cheating but dirty as in thankless. His job in the Buckeye defense is to take on blockers, and he frequently is double teamed freeing others to make the play. Patterson, a starter at defensive end in 2005, lacks the long arms to play the position well. Tackles get their mitts on him, and by his own admission he sometimes can't see the quarterback. Further, tackles are used to players who are actually faster and quicker; handling Patterson is not all that tough of a chore with only his bulk creating a problem. If Patterson is moved inside however, the guards and center are not used to that level of quickness. He is able to pinball around and slip through to pressure the quarterback.
My key reserve for this position is one of two players. I would prefer Cotton if he can put it together mentally. No player at Ohio State other than perhaps Ted Ginn has more talent at their respective position than Cotton. He is a mammoth at 6'4", 315, and he can carry that weight without an inch of fat. He has the potential to be as disruptive as any tackle the Buckeyes have had since ‘Big Daddy' Wilkinson. He has first round talent, but the only question is – does he want it bad enough to work? My second choice would be Alex Barrow. He has solid quickness for the outside, but unusual speed if dropped inside – along with arms long enough to ruin the day of any offensive coordinator. Coaches spoke with him before he even arrived on campus about the possibility of playing inside with his frame so this would be no stretch.
What defines a great player on the edge?
If you had to pick the best Buckeye defensive ends not just from 2002 but from 2001 until now, who would they be? In order I would take: (1) Will Smith (2) Bobby Carpenter (3a) Mike Kudla (3b) Darrion Scott. Each was fast enough to change the offense. Instead of having enough time to throw a deep pass, quarterbacks were forced to drop the ball off on short patterns, i.e., in the national championship game against Miami, there were no 40-yard bombs. Ken Dorsey lacked the time and had to dump it off to Kellen Winslow, Jr. early and often. This is in direct contrast to what happened against Minnesota when Cupito had all day to sit in the pocket and Youboty was hung out to dry.
Does anyone else notice the similarities in those four names?
Three of the four best pressure defensive ends for Ohio State in the past five seasons were not defensive ends when they arrived in Columbus. They were large linebackers. Their quickness allowed them to add 15-25 lbs of bulk and drop down. They did not need blitzing linebackers to free them and forced teams to go to maximum protect formations. Not only that, but frequently they came free anyway – especially if even one linebacker or defensive back was sent on a blitz. This impacts everything from negative yardage plays to turnovers; it's easier to pile up interceptions when the quarterback is rushed to throw downfield where his players are outnumbered 7 to 3 instead of 6 to 4.
The question in my mind therefore is who on the Ohio State roster has the potential to spend the offseason becoming a speed/rush defensive end and a starter in 2006?
The names I can come up with based on body type alone are Chad Hoobler, James Laurinaitis, Austin Spitler, Mike D'Andrea, and Marcus Freeman.
Freeman appears to be a starter at OLB and may be too valuable to drop down. Add to that his height/wingspan would likely land him in the same situation as that of Patterson; it's tough to get away from a 6'6" tackle once he gets his hands on you. Mike D'Andrea, my first choice for this role, is oft injured and adding 20 lbs to a player who has trouble staying healthy to begin with is normally not a bright idea.
Laurinaitis played a good deal this season, so I'm guessing he might be too critical to move as well. He may be the heir apparent to Hawk's slot. Spitler has the look of a linebacker or fullback, not a defensive end. That leaves Chad Hoobler. He is not critical at middle linebacker with both D'Andrea and Jon Kerr looking to start before he sees the field, and he has the size, wingspan, and quickness to repeat what Carpenter, Scott, and Kudla have done before him. Clearly it would all depend on how well he can fight off an offensive tackle and if he takes solid angles to the backfield, but I would at least give it a shot starting now. Dropped into the mix with Lawrence Wilson, Vernon Gholston, Jay Richardson, Ryan Williams, and Doug Worthington, Hoobler might become a difference maker as a rush defensive end.
If there are no current players on the roster who can fill this role, then I would recruit several. Of the linebacker class in 2002, two of the five have ended up standouts at other positions (White and Kudla) and a third may be most at home with a hand down in the pro ranks (Carpenter).
This is where the Buckeyes will take the largest hit in 2006. No other position will lose this amount of talent, and it can be argued that we will see a significant drop off in the level of play.
Again I ask – why was the 2002 unit so good?
It started in the middle. The best linebacker for Ohio State that year was All American Matt Wilhelm. When an offense has to face an All American up the middle, they learn quickly there are few yards to be found inside. Their next step therefore is to scheme plays that stretch the defense to the outside. In 2002, those outside spots were manned by a linebacker with solid speed (Reynolds) and one with outstanding speed in Cie Grant. Grant in particular changed the field with his defensive back quicks and ability to rush the quarterback successfully (ask Ken Dorsey about that one if you have doubts).
The most athletic linebacker is Mike D'Andrea. He likely is the starter in the middle if he gets healthy. He could put it together in his senior seasons to force teams outside. Marcus Freeman has played well enough that he will take over for Carpenter without a significant loss. The question (and drop-off) is found in the position currently manned by Hawk.
Clearly you don't simply replace a guy like Hawk. Hawk is both fast and smart; he is always around the football. He is possibly one of the top three linebackers to ever play at Ohio State, and that is saying a great deal considering the tradition at the position. The only answers are to accept a lesser player at the position in 2006 – or to find a player with something else to bring to the table, i.e., it is unlikely the Buckeyes have a player on the roster who is the ‘next A.J. Hawk', but they might have someone who could be the next Cie Grant.
Enter Brandon Mitchell. Here is a young man who is playing at 205 but is 6-3. He could add 15 lbs easily to play at the same weight as Grant. He has similar speed, and he loves to hit. Also like Grant, 2006 will be his final season; he will want to excel in order to have the best shot at reaching the next level. Depth at safety is sufficient that he would not be missed so long as Donte Whitner stays for his senior year and the young pups like Jamario O'Neal, Anderson Russell, and Donald Washington continue to develop.
If the coaching staff deems Mitchell too important or Whitner exits early, Curt Lukens and Nick Patterson are two who are not currently seeing the field that could have a shot at playing time if they master the linebacker position. Their speed would help the defense from east to west and even north to south – allowing coaches freedom with schemes to confuse a quarterback and notch turnovers and negative yardage plays.
The starters here are fairly easy to pick out barring early NFL exits. Whitner will play strong safety and give quarterbacks nightmares. Malcolm Jenkins will continue to use his blazing speed and developing ball skills to shut down passes to the outside. Youboty might not be Shawn Springs, but he projects to be every bit as good as Dustin Fox as a senior – if not better. The final position is free safety. Assuming Mitchell is now at linebacker, the perfect fit would appear to be someone who is rangy, who likes to hit, and has speed. Who on the roster does that describe? How about Jamario O'Neal? For nickel back, it is tough to find a player with the skills of a Will Allen. He could cover as well as support run defense with wicked blows. With a number of young players who are redshirting it is difficult to project with any accuracy, but I would go with a young cornerback like Andre Amos, incoming freshman Kurt Coleman, or perhaps A.J. Wallace if the Buckeyes land him.
This would leave the starting unit with two key reserves as follows:
(R) Sian Cotton OR Alex Barrow
Mike D'Andrea (or Kerr)
(NB) Amos or Coleman
This defense might make up for its losses with the addition of better overall speed, added size inside, and a ball-hawking secondary. They might leave the opposition to marvel in their wake – just as they did in 2002.
"We knew they were fast but not that fast…"