Cus Words: Seasoning As Important As Talent

Impressive stats do not a national championship defense make, or so Ohio State has learned the past two football seasons. BSB staffer Marcus Hartman examined the defenses of the Jim Tressel era to see just what sets them apart, and the results just might put smiles on the faces of Buckeye fans looking forward to 2008.

Each of the past two seasons, Ohio State has found out building a good defense and constructing one that is worthy of a national championship are not quite the same.

While it is disingenuous to lay the past two title game defeats fully at the feet of the Buckeye defense, it is clear that neither time did the stop troops do as much as they could have to get the team into the winner's circle.

Both yardage totals allowed in the title games were respectable, but 79 cumulative points is not.

That's true regardless of short fields, personal fouls or whatever other extenuating circumstances arose to make the defense's job more difficult.

But rather than rehash what went wrong, let's examine how the problem can be solved. Examining some numbers from the Jim Tressel era actually revealed that some routine maintenance may be all that is necessary to get this machine running at an even higher level than the past two years.

As it turns out, the solution could be as simple as each player's blowing out another set of birthday candles.

The three defenses from Tressel's BCS-bowl winning teams – those for the 2002, '03 and '05 seasons – had both the most cumulative years of previous starting experience and the fewest first-year starters of any of Tressel's seven OSU squads.

In 2002, the national champions returned defensive linemen Darrion Scott, Kenny Peterson and Tim Anderson, linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant (who started at cornerback the previous season) and safeties Mike Doss and Donnie Nickey. That group had a total of 11 years of starting experience prior to 2002. The new starters were Will Smith up front, Robert Reynolds at linebacker and cornerbacks Dustin Fox and Chris Gamble.

That defense finished No. 2 nationally in points allowed and 23rd in yards given up.

A season later, Scott, Anderson, Smith, Reynolds, Fox and Gamble returned with nine combined years of starting experience under their belts. They welcomed to the lineup Simon Fraser, Fred Pagac Jr., A.J. Hawk, Will Allen and Nate Salley. The result was the 16th-best scoring defense and 10th-best unit in terms of yards allowed.

Neither the '02 or '03 team can match the experience of the 2005 defense, however. That year Quinn Pitcock, Mike Kudla and Marcus Green returned up front, Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel were back at linebacker and Salley, Ashton Youboty, Tyler Everett and Donte Whitner formed a fully veteran secondary.

The group, with newcomer David Patterson on the defensive line, could boast of 14 years combined on the job and finished fifth in both points and yards allowed.

Now how does that compare to the past two seasons?

Ohio State had only two starters back on defense in 2006 – Patterson and Pitcock. That pair had previously started for three seasons combined. Despite all the new faces, the Buckeyes were fifth in scoring defense and 12th in yards allowed.

In 2007, four starters returned: defensive end Vernon Gholston, linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman along with cornerback Malcolm Jenkins. They had four previous starting seasons to their names and finished the season atop the nation in both scoring and yards allowed.

Of course, success is not all about having been there before.

Talent is a factor, too, and one could definitely make the case that those three defenses simply had better players than did the past two.

An NFL team eventually drafted every starter from the 2002 defense, and the '03 defense had nine future draftees among its starting 11.

The '05 team had just seven future pros, but six of them were first-day draft picks (chosen among the first three rounds). The '03 team had six first-day picks while the '02 squad had eight.

Conversely, four players from the 2006 defense have already exhausted their eligibility and not been drafted: Patterson, linebacker John Kerr and defensive backs Antonio Smith and Brandon Mitchell.

It is too early to say with certainty how many players from the 2007 defense will get NFL shots, but Gholston, Laurinaitis, Jenkins and Freeman are essentially locks, and defensive lineman Cameron Heyward is the next best thing to one. rates linebacker Larry Grant, the other starter aside from Gholston who won't be back in 2008, the No. 24 outside linebacker in this draft class, so he would seem to be a long shot.

The rest – defensive linemen Todd Denlinger and Doug Worthington and defensive backs Kurt Coleman, Anderson Russell and Donald Washington – all have the potential to be NFL players but still have some proving themselves on the field to do before solidifying their draft status.

How does this bode for the immediate future?

Well if past truly is prologue, 2008 could be a big one for the Buckeye stop troops because nine starters are expected back. Only the 2005 defense had more (10).

The group has 12 cumulative years of starting experience under its belt, fewer than the '05 unit but more than 2002.

But what about those numbers?

Stats aren't everything, of course, but it does seem odd that some of the gaudiest numbers were posted by the past two defenses even if more than one earlier version may have ben better.

How do we account for that?

Well, take a look at the level of competition.

In the past two years, Ohio State has faced nine ranked teams, winning seven and losing two.

In 2002, the Buckeyes had a respectable five ranked foes among its 14 victims, but look at both '03 and '05.

Each of those schedules included eight ranked teams with Ohio State posting a 12-4 record overall. Three of those losses were road conference contests and the fourth was at home against the eventual national champion, a Texas team that just happened to boast perhaps the nation's best player in quarterback Vince Young.

And if these are lean times in the Big Ten (and they are), don't forget the good ol' days were not that long ago.

In each of the past two years, three Big Ten teams were ranked when they played the Buckeyes.

In 2005, the number was doubled. Yes, as hard as it might be to believe, 75 percent (six of eight) of Ohio State's conference foes were in the Top 25 when they tangled with the Bucks that year.

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