Under The Microscope: Defense/Special Teams

BuckeyeSports.com continues its preliminary look at what might happen during spring practice by asking the biggest questions at each position and pointing out some players to watch for OSU fans when the pads go on next week. The defense and special teams units are the focus of today's story.

With Terrelle Pryor committed and the basketball team in the NIT, attention can turn to Ohio State spring football practice, which is set to begin March 27. As the pads are broken out and the team readies for its 15 practices, BuckeyeSports.com takes a look at some of the major question marks surrounding each position group during the spring. Today, the defense and special teams go under the microscope.

Defensive line – Who will become the next dominant player?
The Buckeye defensive line was lucky to have Vernon Gholston in 2007. While the rest of his young linemates played well at only certain points of the year, Gholston was one of best players at his position in the country throughout the campaign and was named the league's defensive lineman of the year after finishing with an Ohio State record of 14 sacks, making 37 tackles overall and dominating the Michigan game with three sacks.

Now with the junior gone to the NFL draft, the Buckeyes will have to have a player or two step up to Gholston's level if OSU wants to reach its goals. That will be especially true at the tackle spot, where the Buckeyes were dominated in 2007 during losses against Illinois and LSU. Returning players Nader Abdallah, Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington and Dexter Larimore combined for 72 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss in 13 games after Quinn Pitcock himself had 39 and 12, respectively, in 2006.

At the end spot, Cameron Heyward came on and earned the starting job by the end of the season, making 33 stops, 10 of which came behind the line of scrimmage. The second end spot will be one that bears watching, with last year's game one starter, Lawrence Wilson, coming back from a broken leg and the other top candidate Robert Rose out for the spring after shoulder surgery. Rose made just four tackles in 2007.

Player To Watch: Cameron Heyward Considering he boasts the best 2007 numbers of the returning linemen, Heyward could be the next breakout star at the end spot just like Gholston before him. A true freshman in 2007, Heyward showcased both strength and speed at the end spot and wreaked havoc in backfields, reaching double figures in tackles for loss despite not starting the first five games.

"It was fun to watch him grow from pretty much a high school kid to the young man that he is now," Denlinger said. "You watch practices and you can see him grow every day."

How Wilson, who made 18 tackles and three sacks in 2006 as a sophomore, returns from the leg injury will be interesting as well. Wilson nearly made it back in time for the national title game, but there's no telling just how much work he'll put in considering the severity of his injury.

Linebacker – Will Curtis Terry grab the open linebacker position?
Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis are the obvious choices at weakside and middle linebacker, respectively, after both topped the 100-tackle mark in 2007. However, with the graduation of Larry Grant, the '07 starter at strongside backer who made 51 tackles, a coveted spot opens up for a member of Ohio State's deep and talented linebacking corps.

The front-runner would appear to be Terry, who started the Michigan game in 2006 and finished the season with 17 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. He was slated to battle with Grant for the strongside spot in '07 before an ankle injury wiped out his campaign. Now, he gets another crack at his senior season, and the 6-2, 236-pound run stuffer hopes to be 100 percent for the first time in a while after a foot injury handicapped him through the '06 season and '07 offseason.

"I had just come off the surgery and I really didn't practice at all during the spring and I really didn't do summer training," Terry said of last year's experience. "(Now) I have a clean slate of health and I feel like I'm going to be able to train a lot harder and get a lot better."

Players To Watch: Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat Though Ohio State has plenty of talent with which to work at the linebacker position at the moment, it seems that people are always interested in seeing the newest flavors. In this case, that means Sabino and Sweat. Because most people have a feel of what players like Austin Spitler and Ross Homan can do, it is natural to wonder exactly how class of 2008 middle linebackers Sabino and Sweat will perform. It will be interesting to see just how much Sabino, Scout's No. 2 middle linebacker in the class of '08, and Sweat, the No. 6 MLB, do during their first time on a field at Ohio State. Their reputation certainly precedes them.

Secondary – Will any of the young cornerbacks step up?
While Ohio State has built up quite the stable of linebackers, the Buckeyes slightly more quietly have put together some quality depth in the defensive backfield as well. Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington have established themselves as starters, but Chimdi Chekwa, Andre Amos, Eugene Clifford, Donnie Evege and James Scott all were underclassmen last year and came to Ohio State in high regard.

"We're fortunate to have a great group," cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said. "We do have some depth, which is very, very rare in college football to have depth at the cornerback position. The guys are getting better because they work at it."

Chekwa slid into the role of the No. 3 corner, making 30 tackles and an interception, while Amos returned to special teams and spot cornerback duty after an early-season injury and Clifford and Scott did most of their work on special teams as true freshmen in 2007. Evege was redshirted for the campaign. With playing time behind Jenkins and Washington somewhat limited, the fight to see the field should be fairly intense.

Player To Watch: Eugene Clifford Clifford came to Ohio State highly touted as the only five-star member of the class of 2007. The 2006 Ohio Division I player of the year at Cincinnati Colerain, Clifford came to OSU having played safety in high school before a move to cornerback. He earned some playing time both at that spot and on special teams, making eight tackles, before seeing his playing time dwindle as the year went on and then being suspended for the national title game. Clifford's talent is well known, and a good spring would help him get back in the good graces of both the coaching staff and the fans while tossing his hat back into the derby for playing time as a reserve.

Special teams – Will Aaron Pettrey or Ryan Pretorius grab the placekicking job?
Both placekickers have had success as Ohio State's No. 1 kicker during the past two years. Pettrey won the job in fall practices before the 2006 season and made 8 of 11 field goals and showed the range to make kicks consistently from beyond the 50-yard mark. Then, Pretorius took over in 2007, usurping Pettrey during fall and making 18 of 23 field goals. However, four of those five misses were blocked, including one in the BCS National Championship Game that came after Pretorius' blockers were beaten at the line of scrimmage.

Now with both having a year of starting experience underneath their belts, the kicking position should become a battle royal in 2008, especially with the supremely talented Ben Buchanan joining the fray come fall. While Pretorius will likely keep the job through spring because of his incumbent status, Pettrey will be readying himself for a fall showdown. But spring has a kick scrimmage, and that likely will be an important initial statement for one of the two contenders.

Player To Watch: Brandon Saine Ohio State's return units were dreadful in 2007, as the punt return unit finished 58th in the nation at 8.9 yards per return while the kick unit was 117th at 17.65 yards per try. It became clear throughout the year that for all the talent Ohio State had on each side of the ball that it was not translating to the return units. The Buckeyes, who certainly pride themselves on special teams under of head coach Jim Tressel, assuredly will look to improve the return units in 2008.

Part of the problem in 2007 came from the fact that the defense was so good that by the end of the year, OSU had just 34 kick returns in 13 games, leaving them short on practice. At one point last year, Darrell Hazell, who coaches the kick return unit, said that through eight games OSU had just 10 returnable kicks.

"That's unheard of. I've never heard of anything like that," he said. "That doesn't help them get a whole lot better, but there are areas of improvement that we can make."

Perhaps a talented player must step up and show game-breaking skill to get the unit back in order. Saine, who holds Ohio's high school 100-meter dash record, certainly has that skill and speed. The Piqua, Ohio, native returned kicks in high school and did so sparingly at OSU in 2007. Given the tremendous talent at the running back position at OSU, Saine might see the biggest chance to shine as a return man in 2008 if his knee that was operated on in '07 is good to go.

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