Midterm Exams: OSU Defense, Special Teams

With six games complete, we take a look at the Midterm Exams for the Ohio State defense and special teams. We look at OSU's standing in the national statistical categories and provide letter grades for each position group, the defensive coaching staff and the special teams. DT Quinn Pitcock, with a team-high five sacks, has been a leader for the defense. Click here for more.

On Wednesday, we provided our Midterm Exam grades for the Ohio State offense. Today, we will do likewise for the OSU defense and special teams.

Before we look at each position group, let's examine the unit rankings for the defense.

* Scoring Defense -- OSU is first in the Big Ten and nationally at 9.3 points per game.

* Total Defense -- OSU is fourth in the conference and 38th nationally at 300.7 yards per game.

* Rushing Defense -- The Buckeyes are third in the Big Ten and 45th nationally at 118.0 yards per game.

* Passing Defense -- OSU is second in the Big Ten and 41st nationally at 182.7 yards per game.

* Turnover Margin -- The Buckeyes are first in the Big Ten and third nationally at plus-1.67 turnover per game. (This is a major turnaround from being 11th in the Big Ten and 104th nationally at the same point a year ago.)

Ohio State returned just two starters – defensive linemen Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson – from last year's stellar defensive unit. Most pundits believed that the defense would take a step back.

And, in some areas, it has. OSU is nowhere near as stingy against the run as it was a year ago, when it was a top-five fixture almost all year in that category. But the difference this year is in turnover margin, where, as noted, the Buckeyes have gone from one of the worst teams to one of the best.

"I think we're happy with where things are," said safeties coach Paul Haynes. "If two months ago you would have told us we'd be here, there is no way. But, the thing that happens is we have to continue improving. That's the thing we keep harping on. Nobody looks at the film like we do. What may look great to everybody else does not look great to us.

"The thing that has saved us is turnovers. The thing we have to improve on is giving up big plays."

OSU coach Jim Tressel spends most of his energy on the offense, leaving the defense to coordinator/line coach Jim Heacock, linebackers coach Luke Fickell, cornerbacks coach Tim Beckman and Haynes. But he has been impressed with the way the defense has passed every test so far this year.

"Being so young and so inexperienced, they've been in position significantly well, compared to people making mistakes and being out of position," Tressel said. "That's how plays happen against you. So I think the poise in which they have learned the system without much game experience, I think that's been a real plus."

OSU defensive end Jay Richardson said the Buckeyes are far from satisfied.

"From a defensive standpoint, we still have a long way to go," he said. "We have a lot of goals. For us, it's not enough for us to be as good as you guys expected us to be. We want to be the best. We are still giving up too many yards. There are definitely some things to clean up. At the end of the day, it is all about who puts points on the board and we are doing a good job of preventing that -- but we don't want to bend at all."

Cornerback Antonio Smith, a pleasant surprise as a first-year starter as a senior, agreed that the Buckeyes can clamp down on the run game a bit.

"We still need to improve in the rushing area but we aren't giving up touchdowns," Smith said. "We have been very consistent in stopping the other team from scoring touchdowns. We still want to improve on stopping the run and preventing big plays, but if we can continue to keep people off the scoreboard we are doing our job.

"The defense prides themselves on being able to stop the rush. We need to stop the running game and stop the other team from making big plays. If a team can rush the ball and make big plays they have a chance to be successful, so we have to stop that from happening."

Quarterback Troy Smith was asked for his impression of the rebuilt OSU defense so far this season.

"They haven't surprised me at all," he said. "Going against them every day is a challenge. They bring looks that we don't see. So as an opposing team, it has to be something to study constantly because of the various looks they bring. That's a credit to our defensive staff to be able to reload year after year."

Here go the unit rankings:

Defensive Line

The OSU defensive line has helped the Buckeyes produce 20 quarterback sacks in six games. Plus, they have helped pressure opposing quarterbacks into a number of costly interceptions and mistakes. There is still some work to do against the run, but this four-man unit – usually Richardson and Vernon Gholston (4-1/2 sacks, nine TFLs) and Pitcock and Patterson inside – has done some big things.

"We're not always gap sound," Richardson said. "Our fits are not always correct as far as guys being where they need to be every play. We just need to have more consistent, but some of that comes with also being a young team. Young guys are not going to be consistent on every single play."

Pitcock, with a team-high five sacks, has played at an All-American level for a good part of the year.

"The biggest thing I've been able to do this year is stay low," he said. "Sometimes, you get your feet caught up the wrong way. I think this year I've done a lot better at disengaging, getting off blocks and making plays. It's a one-on-one battle and whoever wants to win that battle will win the war."

Freshman Robert Rose (three sacks) has been a pleasant surprise. More was predicted from fellow ends Lawrence Wilson and Alex Barrow, but there are six games left. Senior Joel Penton figures to start at DT at Michigan State with Patterson out after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. Backup Todd Denlinger has done a good job at DT and redshirt freshman Doug Worthington could also get a look there this week.

Midterm Grade: A-minus


Nobody expected the linebacker corps to live up to last year's group of Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Schlegel and Lombardi Award winner A.J. Hawk. But the play here – other than some assorted missed tackles here and there – has been pretty strong.

Sophomore James Laurinaitis stepped in for Schlegel in the middle and that has gone so well (team-highs in tackles with 50 and interceptions with four) he was added to the Butkus Award watch list last week.

Sophomore Marcus Freeman (third on the team with 33 tackles) starts at the strongside spot, but junior Curtis Terry has pushed him and they have begun splitting time in some situations.

The boundary spot is held by senior John Kerr (14 tackles), but he has also been spelled by freshman Ross Homan (14 tackles) and the BLB is the one who usually comes off the field in lieu of the nickel – which OSU has employed roughly 50 percent of the time so far.

JUCO transfer Larry Grant is penciled in as the backup at MLB, but his plays have been cut as Laurinaitis rarely comes off the field. But Grant did have an interception and a 49-yard return in his OSU debut against Northern Illinois.

Midterm Grade: B

Defensive Backs

This has been a pleasant surprise for the Buckeyes, who needed four new starters after safety Nate Salley and corner Tyler Everett graduated and safety Donte Whitner and corner Ashton Youboty left school a year early for the NFL.

Senior Brandon Mitchell is second on the team in tackles (36) and also has an interception from his strong safety spot. Redshirt freshman Anderson Russell outdueled sophomore Nick Patterson for the free safety spot and was on his way to a fine debut season before injuring his knee at Iowa and he was lost for the year. Sophomore Jamario O'Neal is filling in for him.

Smith has ably filled one corner spot as he is fourth on the team with 29 stops. Sophomore Malcolm Jenkins, who played as the nickel back and spot starter last year, is fifth on the team with 27 tackles form the other corner position.

"It's not really a surprise to us," Smith said. "It may be a surprise to people looking on. We pride ourselves on being a good secondary. A lot of people doubted us because we were young and inexperienced. But that did not hinder us. We go out every day and try to get better. We compete against the best receiving corps in the nation every day. That is definitely a plus for us."

Redshirt freshman Donald Washington has also fared nicely as a backup at corner and work as the nickel back.

Jenkins joins Mitchell in leading this group and he said they had high expectations for both the secondary and the defense as a whole.

"We want to leave no doubt," he said. "We don't want anyone to question how good we are. No disrespect to the other teams, but as a defense we don't want to give up any points. We have high expectations for ourselves. Any time you don't achieve your goals, it's a disappointment."

Midterm Grade: B-plus

Defensive Coaching

I thought Heacock deserved the Broyles Award a year ago for his work with the OSU defense. The big thing last year was the results he got after taking over the defense when Mark Snyder bolted to become head coach at Marshall at the end of spring practice. Obviously, he (and the other assistants) get the gold star for the way they have retooled with so many fresh faces.

The defensive plan has been strong as the Buckeyes have gotten after opposing passers and forced the issue. They never gave young QBs like Colt McCoy at Texas and Anthony Morelli of Penn State a shot and they even made Iowa's Drew Tate (three bad picks) look like a rookie.

There is a reason Tressel stays out of the way on defense. It's because Heacock, Fickell, Beckman and Haynes know what they're doing. So far, nearly every move they have made has been dead on.

Midterm Grade: A-minus

Special Teams

Tressel's teams pride themselves on great special teams play. We are still waiting to see that, though, in 2006. (Actually, I would expect all areas of the special teams to improve over the second half.)

Ted Ginn Jr. still hasn't broken the big one with either a punt or a kick, primarily because teams have kicked away or schemed against the talented OSU return man. The Buckeyes are 44th nationally in punt returns and a distant 113th in kick returns. (Of course, they've had to return more than two or three per game, anyway.)

The kicking game was an adventure early and Ryan Pretorius and Aaron Pettrey are a combined 5 of 9 on field goals. But Pettrey seems to be settling in. He has a 47-yarder to his credit. Pretorius made a 52-yarder as well against Cincinnati.

A.J. Trapasso is doing a decent job punting, averaging 42.4 yards per boot and putting nine of his 24 punts down inside the 20. OSU is 15th nationally in net punting.

Midterm Grade: B-minus

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