Defensive Coaches Deal With Youth

Those expecting a dominating defensive performance out of Ohio State in 2007 would be smart to keep in mind the inexperienced nature of the 2007 stop troops. Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock knows that, admitting that he might have to the Xs and Os a little easier to take advantage of the natural skills of his young group of Buckeyes.

Jim Heacock has a problem. The Ohio State defensive coordinator presides over a group that might be as strong when it comes to pure talent as any group in Buckeye history. Yet at the same time, it's also one of the youngest.

Lost in the hype of the All-America candidacies of a trio of juniors – defensive end Vernon Gholston, linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins – is the fact that with linebacker Curtis Terry's leg injury, just one senior – starting strong-side linebacker Larry Grant – is listed in the two-deep for the Sept. 1 opener with Youngstown State.

Even last year's defense, which had to replace nine starters, started three seniors on the defensive line, two in the secondary and occasionally had John Kerr starting at linebacker. So while this year's group is much more ballyhooed heading into the season than last year's, it is also much younger.

"When you look at this group of players, there's not many seniors," Heacock said. "We have one senior starting, maybe one in the two-deep right now if I'm not mistaken. I think this is a little bit more of an immature team."

Heacock confirmed that he did have to start a little slower this year when teaching the defensive schemes, and he also said he had to start with coaching to the contributors who know the least going into the season. In addition, he said the defense might be limited with what it can do in 2007 in terms of Xs and Os.

"I think so," he said. "You've got a group of guys, maybe five guys that played a lot last year, maybe as many as six. You can kind of go with them. Then you've got another group of four or five sophomores that are going to be starting, and they're going to be starting from scratch, kind of like James (Laurinaitis) did last year."

Included in that group would figure to be first-year starters on the line in Todd Denlinger and Doug Worthington, as well as safety Kurt Coleman. Donald Washington and Anderson Russell are also sophomores but combined for 13 starts in 2006.

To work those younger players into the defense, a delicate balancing act will be required.

"Hopefully we give them enough that we can stop the offense, there's enough in our package that we can at least feel like we have something to stop the offense," Heacock said. "But also, you want to keep it simple enough that they can run and hit. We want to take advantage of their abilities.

"The last thing we want is a kid out there thinking, ‘Should I do this?' and hesitating. We want to keep it as simple as we have to to allow 11 guys on the field to play hard. That's top priority for us."

A coach who might have the youngest unit overall is Paul Haynes. The Buckeye safeties coach returns five players looking for playing time who have started a combined 13 games at Ohio State, none of whom have more than eight starts. His expected starters (Russell and Coleman) have a combined four starts in Scarlet and Gray.

Haynes said he isn't so much changing anything schematically but, echoing Heacock, has tried to simplify what the safeties must do in order to perform at a high level.

"The big thing, I think, is just try to make it simple," Haynes said. "I don't think it's going to change what we do because we are what we are. Those guys have been around a couple years so they've learned the system. You might not be able to do as much, but just try to keep it simple for them and let them run and play."

Haynes said repeatedly that his biggest goal is to find what his players are comfortable with and then go from there. Second on that list would be to coach his younger players to err on the side of recklessness.

"We want them to err being aggressive," he said. "You don't want them to be passive. Passive will give up more big plays than being aggressive."

That might sound a bit odd, given that the safety position is often the last line of defense, but Haynes dismissed that line of reasoning.

"The thing about it is there are more plays that happen in front of them than are going to happen behind them," he said. "You need them up. Now, you don't need a guy playing a deep third that's running up on an iso because he's not making the play, but you do need them to come up and make plays and do things like that.

"And they will make mistakes. You have to understand that and you can't sit there and browbeat them because you don't want them like a dog with their tail between their legs every time they do something wrong. It's going to happen. The big thing is make sure that they're learning from it and keep improving."

The above details might paint a sobering picture about a Buckeye defense that many hope will be the calling card for another championship team, but don't count Heacock among those worried that the defensive playbook might be a little thinner this time around.

"It's probably a blessing," Heacock said with a chuckle. "Us coaches kind of get carried away sometimes. You put in too much a lot of times. I think this forces us to keep it simple. I think we're better off doing it that way and letting the kids play ball."

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