Tackles Know Improvement Must Be Made

For the Ohio State football team to get where it wants to be in 2008, the Buckeyes need to get improved play from their defensive tackles. Coordinator and line coach Jim Heacock said as much Tuesday, and he and his charges talked about how the group can improve and how much it has done so already this spring.

The numbers don't lie, and neither does Jim Heacock.

Looking at the statistics compiled by the 2007 Ohio State football team, it's fair to say that the production at the defensive tackle spot was a little bit short. 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 had 39 and 12, respectively, in 2006 by himself.

And a Tuesday questioning of Heacock, the Buckeye defensive line coach and coordinator, elicited a quick response when the coach was asked if he was happy with his tackles in 2007, especially when it came to getting to the quarterback.

"No," Heacock said without much hesitation. "I wasn't happy at all with the inside pressure.

"We have to have better play. Not that they didn't play hard and well, but they were a young group that was just learning, and I don't know if we got the productivity out of them that we need to get if we're going to be what we want."

The inconsistency out of the players at the position might have proved to be too much to overcome as Ohio State lost two of its last three games of the '07 campaign. In the penultimate game of the regular season, there wasn't much pressure to be had while an Illinois offense that kept the Buckeyes off balance piled up a Jim Tressel-era record 260 yards on the ground.

A week later, every Buckeye stop trooper played well in keeping Michigan to just 91 yards of total offense. That was particularly true at tackle, where every member of the quartet at the position played well after early struggles on the drive on which Michigan scored its lone points on a field goal.

But the play in the BCS title game against LSU was again short of the target. End Vernon Gholston earned the only sack of the game and the Tigers gutted out 152 yards on the ground on the way to a 38-24 win.

Worthington said the team did receive a critique for its play against the Fighting Illini and Tigers.

"I would say that," he said. "The spread with Illinois, there are certain things that we should have done as defensive linemen that we didn't. We didn't stay in our gaps sometimes. LSU, we sometimes looked in the lights too much and we were just happy to be on that stage. At the end of the day I know that we'll be a lot more focused and a lot more ready for big games like that and be ready to play our ball."

Perhaps the youth at the position played a part in that inconsistency. The presumed starters at the beginning of the year, Denlinger and Worthington, entered as sophomores with a combined seven tackles between them. Larimore was a redshirt freshman and Abdallah was a junior who had played sparingly during his first two seasons in scarlet and gray.

It didn't help the situation that the Buckeyes had to fight through injuries. Denlinger missed three games because of leg injuries midway through the year and still was playing only sparingly against Illinois, while the rest of the youngsters had to deal with the bumps of bruises of full-time Big Ten play.

"It was hard to get in a groove, and we were a young group," Denlinger said. "The first couple of times you're out there, your head is kind of swimming around. You're trying to do too much and you're not really sure how to play the game. This year it's going to be real nice having that experience and having all of the guys back."

When asked specific things the tackles need to work on to improve, Denlinger said everything – work with hands, feet and moves – while Abdallah pointed to using hands better, getting off blocks, getting lower and improving explosion off the ball. However, the year of experience so far has proved as crucial to improvement as any technique work in practice.

"They're much improved this spring already," Heacock said. "I think they're much more active."

It appears the Buckeye tackles are taking Heacock's message to heart already, especially with the loss of Gholston, whose 14 sacks in 2007 were a school record and more than the four tackles had combined.

"(Heacock has) emphasized throughout the winter that we have to get push up the middle," Denlinger said. "We're losing 14 sacks with Vern, and there's no reason the four guys inside shouldn't be able to fill that void because we have experience coming back and we'll always be fresh. Now it's just learning the techniques and learning the moves we'll need to get that push up the middle."

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