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In each issue of Bucknuts The Magazine, we have in-depth features on Ohio State football players, coaches and prospects. We also have analysis pieces on the Buckeyes as well as their opponents, the Big Ten and college football world in general. Plus, we have features on OSU athletes in a variety of sports, including men's and women's basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and other sports.
Headline: A Quick Reload
By Dave Biddle
(From Summer 2006 issue)
Despite losing nine starters from last year's unit, Ohio State's defensive coaches and players believe there were several encouraging signs that emerged from spring practice.
The Buckeyes likely won't be as good defensively as they were in 2005, but it appears as though there won't be a big drop-off. And, hey, that's what the top teams are supposed to do. It's a cliché, but it's probably true: Good teams don't rebuild; they reload.
It will be a tough task replacing three first-round NFL draft picks (A.J. Hawk, Donte Whitner, Bobby Carpenter) two third-round picks (Ashton Youboty and Anthony Schlegel), and a fourth-round pick (Nate Salley) but OSU should still have one of the best defenses in the Big Ten in 2006.
Another factor that will help the "Silver Bullets" is for the first time since 2003, the entire OSU coaching staff remains in tact from the previous season. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is entering his second year as coordinator and his 11th season at OSU – the longest tenure on the staff. Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell is entering his fifth year on the staff. And entering their second years are cornerbacks coach Tim Beckman and safeties coach Paul Haynes. Continuity on a coaching staff is always important for a football team, especially for a defense that will be as young as OSU in some spots.
Let's go position-by-position and take a closer look at Ohio State's defense heading into the summer and preseason camp.
Without question, the strength of the defense will be up front on the line. The only full-time returning starters on the defense are senior tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson. Patterson actually started at end last year, but will see most of his snaps inside this year.
Heacock mentioned during the spring that Pitcock and Patterson have the chance to be one of the best defensive tackle tandems in college football this season.
"He said that one day and I was kind of surprised," Pitcock said. "But then we were watching film and there was one particular play where Dave and I did textbook style, perfect everything. Looking at that, I can kind of see where he's coming from. We have the potential and if we listen to him and work hard enough we may have a chance."
Like former OSU defensive tackle Tim Anderson, Pitcock (6-3, 300) is never going to put up big statistics in OSU's system. His job is to eat up blockers so the linebackers are free to make plays. Last season, Pitcock had 28 tackles (14 solos) three tackles-for-loss, and one sack.
The 6-3, 300-pound Patterson had 24 tackles (14 solos), 7.5 tackles-for-loss, and four sacks last year. He's a big man that can move and he will be a tough match-up for interior offensive linemen.
The backup tackles will likely be fifth-year senior Joel Penton (6-5, 290), and redshirt freshman Todd Denlinger (6-3, 290). Denlinger really came on this spring, including an impressive safety in the spring game. Sophomore Nader Abdallah (6-4, 310) will also be in the mix.
The Buckeyes should also be strong at defensive end. Fifth-year senior Jay Richardson had a good spring and is expected to lock down one of the starting spots this fall. The 6-6, 280-pound Richardson had two sacks in 2005. He has always been a talented player, but his motor has often come into question. But this is the year that Richardson is hoping to put it all together.
"I'm trying to step up and be a leader for these guys," Richardson said. "I definitely want to start and be a key player for this defense and just help us win. I'm trying to be a harder worker and just take my whole game up a notch. My mindset going into this year is just to play hard every down and be a leader out there. Be someone that the young guys can look to in the huddle when it's third-and-1."
The other defensive end spot is still open, but sophomore Lawrence Wilson will likely be the starter. He was impressive as a freshman last year in limited action and is already being touted as the next great rush end to come out of OSU.
"I'm just trying to fill my role," Wilson said. "Coach Heacock says we have to get after the quarterback and we have to create pressure, so that's all I'm trying to do. It's really been fun this spring. A lot of our defenders are young and we're just having a ball playing with each other. We have so much energy and great chemistry right now."
The 6-6 Wilson – who was also a talented basketball player in high school – showed up weighing 235 pounds last fall. But he has hit the weights hard and has already added 40 pounds of muscle to his frame.
"I weigh 275 right now," he said. "It's just from eating the right things, and hitting the weights and losing body fat. I actually want to play around 270 this year."
Wilson has the chance to develop into an excellent pass rusher off the edge.
"I think getting after the quarterback is my strength," Wilson said. "I think I have a good combination of burst, speed and power. My technique is pretty good and I'm just trying to get better every day."
Also sure to play a lot at defensive end – and possibly start – is sophomore Vernon Gholston. He is chiseled out of granite at 6-3, 265 pounds.
"I have good strength, but my main attribute is my speed," Gholston said. "I just try and get off the edge and get to the quarterback, or make the play. Just get off the ball and go."
Gholston took a medical redshirt last year after suffering a hand injury. But he's ready to make his mark this season. He plans on pushing Richardson and Wilson for a starting spot.
"Well, if you have the mind-set of ‘I want to come off the bench' instead of being a starter, you're selling yourself short right there," Gholston said. "But I just want to help us out and win as much as we can."
Sophomore Alex Barrow will also be in the mix at defensive end. The 6-4, 270-pound Barrow can also slide down to tackle.
Heacock loves to roll players through on the defensive line. Fans can expect a rotation of seven or eight players this year, with Pitcock and Patterson rarely leaving the field.
Hawk, Carpenter and Schlegel made up arguably the best class of linebackers in school history. But there are at least seven hungry players fighting to replace them. The spring was heated at the linebacker position and a few players made their marks and stood above the rest.
As it stands, the listed starters are sophomore Marcus Freeman (WLB), senior John Kerr (MLB) and sophomore James Laurinaitis (SLB). But true freshman Ross Homan – who graduated high school early so he could participate in spring ball – might have been the most impressive player in the entire bunch this spring.
The group also includes Larry Grant – the top JUCO linebacker in the country last year. He might not start this year, but he is sure to see the field a lot due to his excellent speed.
Juniors Chad Hoobler and Curtis Terry would be starters on some Division I teams, but they are the sixth and seventh players in the discussion. The point is there's a lot of competition and the players know jobs are available.
"That has kind of been the good thing about it," Fickell said. "These young guys can see the light at the end of the tunnel. You always preach to them that they've got to get better and better and they're only one play away, but it's kind of hard when you've got proven starters in front of you. Not that they didn't work hard, but now there's a lot of competition and I think that's what is going to make this group good."
Freeman (6-2, 230) is stepping in for Hawk at the playmaking weak side spot. He missed last season with a staph infection following knee surgery, but Fickell thinks he might be the next star to play linebacker at OSU.
"He really has got everything you're looking for," Fickell said. "He's smart, he's strong, he can run. He's got everything, but he's still learning. He knows what is going on; he's been here for two years. He just needs to cut it loose and react a little more at times. But he's doing a lot of good things for us. He lines up the defense and he's going to have to be a guy that steps up for us this year."
Fickell is also excited about Kerr, the 6-1, 246-pound walk-on who led Indiana (and all Big Ten freshmen) in tackles in 2002. Kerr does not have tremendous speed, but he's a sure tackler.
"John Kerr is instinctive and makes plays," Fickell said. "At the beginning of spring we moved him to the middle from Will, and at first he had to think about things for a split second. But he picked it up great and he's a battler. He's going to be around the ball and will make plays."
Grant (6-3, 225) has low-4.5 speed and can play both outside spots.
"I haven't had a lot of experience with junior college kids, but it's great that he's here in the spring," Fickell said. "He really picked things up and is a smarter football player than I guess I would have expected. He didn't take much time to pick things up and he's a very natural and instinctive football player."
But it's going to be hard to get Laurinaitis out of the starting lineup. The 6-3, 235-pound "Animal Jr." was the first player the coaches turned to when Carpenter broke his leg at Michigan last year. Laurinaitis will only get better with each snap and he's a football savvy young man that enjoys studying the game. He also has a lot of respect for the players that came before him at OSU.
"We have a great tradition here and we want to uphold that," Laurinaitis said. "The fans expect great things out of the Ohio State linebackers and we understand that. I think we have a lot of talent and we will be up for the challenge."
Laurinaitis is all about football and he plans on doing whatever he can to get better this summer.
"I kind of want to elevate everything," he said. "You look at last year's guys and it's one of those things where you wish you could have Bobby's athletic ability, and Anthony's smarts, and A.J.'s everything. You kind of wish you could have a little bit of all three of them and you could work your butt off to do that. But really, I'm just trying to understand the whole scheme of things. As opposed to last year when I was just worried about what I needed to do. Now, it's understanding what the entire defense is trying to do."
Laurinaitis enjoys the battle for playing time. He knows that all the scholarship linebackers are capable of getting the job done and any of them could start.
"There's a ton of competition at linebacker," he said. "We've got six guys that can go out there and play right now. I think it's going to benefit our team the whole year because you know you have to be focused, because if you have one bad day of practice, you might not be starting that Saturday. I think that's the thing that is really going to help everyone out.
"There might be four or five guys that step up – instead of seven – and play the most during the year. And having competition is going to keep those guys firing because they know there are people on the heels. You really never know. You go to practice, look at the depth chart and say, ‘Hey, hopefully I'm up there today,' and you've got to keep going."
If Laurinaitis is Animal Jr. (after his father, the professional wrestler), then Homan must be "Hawk Jr." It sounded ridiculous when the 6-1, 237-pound Homan was being compared to one of the most decorated players in school history. But then he showed up this spring and played like a young Hawk. He looked like Hawk, ran like him, tackled like him … even interviewed like him.
"I'm so honored to be in that position and have people label me as that," Homan said of the comparisons to Hawk. "It just makes me work harder when I hear that."
Homan was one of the stories of the spring, but in a very Hawk-like way, he tried to deflect any praise.
"I think I did all right this spring," Homan said. "I went out there and competed and that was my main goal, so I thought I accomplished that."
When asked for his personal goals for his freshman season, the Coldwater, Ohio, product said: "Just to get better. Both mentally and physically. Trying to go out there and help my team any way I can."
Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, fifth-year senior Mike D'Andrea's status is still up in the air for 2006 after missing spring with his ongoing knee injury. D'Andrea was the top rated linebacker in OSU's 2002 recruiting class that included Hawk and Carpenter.
"Mike is still a mystery and I feel so bad for Mike because what a great kid," Fickell said. "He's worked so hard for it to be his time. But three or four days before spring ball, he couldn't do it. He so motivated that I don't think he ever sat long enough to truly let his knee heal. We are going to let him try and completely heal this summer and see what kind of role he can fill this fall."
At cornerback, the Buckeyes are going to be as green as the grass in Ohio Stadium… almost. Sophomore Malcolm Jenkins started four games last year (due to an injury to Tyler Everett) and was in there enough to show that he might be the next great corner at OSU. Jenkins (6-1, 200) will start at the boundary corner this season and will need to be the leader of the young group of defensive backs.
"It is kind of crazy to consider myself a veteran," Jenkins said. "But with me being the one that has the most experience, I know I need to take that leadership role and take it in stride."
There are several players competing to be the starting "field" corner. Fifth-year senior Antonio Smith – a special teams standout and former walk-on – is currently listed atop the depth chart. But the prevailing feeling is that it will come to a trio of young players: redshirt freshmen Andre Amos and Donald Washington, and true freshman Kurt Coleman.
"I think all of them have stepped it up," Jenkins said. "Kurt Coleman really had a good spring. Donald Washington has really stood out to me and he was running with the ones. I think Andre Amos looked good this spring too. He's really improved his technique, which I think has helped him out a lot.
"We've got a lot of speed and a lot of talent. We're real hungry because all those spots are open and everyone is competing and I think that is helping us. We know we've got the athletic ability, we just have to get smart and get experience."
Jenkins was one of the best true freshmen in the Big Ten last year, but he thinks he can get much better.
"I am going to try and improve my whole game," he said. "But I think I need to play more of a finesse game at times. I need to work on that – not being overly aggressive. I'm still going to play aggressive, but the coaches have talked to me about picking my spots and using a finesse game when I need to."
At safety, the Buckeyes are equally as inexperienced. They do have fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell, but he was listed as a backup to sophomore Jamario O'Neal at strong safety this spring. The 6-3, 205-pound Mitchell has played a lot of football in his career, and he's a solid player, but the hard-hitting O'Neal (6-1, 190) is going to remind a lot of people of Whitner.
There is also an interesting battle shaping up at the free safety position. Sophomore Nick Patterson (6-2, 210) and redshirt freshman Anderson Russell (6-1, 205) were impressive this spring – especially Russell.
"He's unbelievable," Homan said of Russell. "He's one of the fastest players I've seen going from point A to point B. He's so fast and he's so aggressive. And tackle-wise, he's one of the best on our team. He could be a great one."
Jenkins also thought Russell stood out during the spring with his 4.37 speed and playmaking abilities.
"Anderson Russell, he's just explosive," Jenkins said. "We keep a production chart and he has the most production out of everybody, even me. Anderson has a lot of speed, he's an explosive player and he makes a lot of plays."
Russell takes a simple approach to the gridiron every day. He's got a blue-collar attitude and he is sure to play a lot for OSU this year.
"I think I just come out and put forth 100 percent effort," Russell said. "I got redshirted last year and I didn't really have any knowledge of the defense and I was just scout team all year. So, I got a lot thrown at me this spring and I think I picked it up well."
He sure did, especially for someone without much experience playing defense.
"I didn't really play that much safety in high school," Russell said. "I was just a straight running back. But (former OSU secondary coach Mel) Tucker told me when they were recruiting me that they wanted me as a safety, so I knew coming in here what position I'd be playing."
Russell enjoys the competition for the starting spots and knows that it will go all the way into preseason camp and probably continue throughout the season.
"Yeah, there's going to be a chance for all of us to start, so there's going to be a lot of competition this summer and especially when we get started with camp this August," he said. "We're going to see how everything will shape up.
"I still have a long ways to go because this is really my first time practicing with the team, so I really have to work on everything. I just want to keep getting stronger and faster during the off-season and watch a lot of film."
Overall, there are going to be growing pains for OSU's secondary – and the defense as a whole. But this is a talented defense that should, once again, prove to be one of the best defenses in the conference.