After missing the first two games of the season while serving team suspensions for unspecified off-the-field transgressions, junior Donald Washington and senior Jamario O'Neal both return to the field for the Buckeyes as they head west to face USC. While both have played significant roles for the Buckeyes during their careers, the question now is how much they will play this weekend against the Trojans.
"I think anytime you get people back, whether it's from injury or suspension or from whatever, it adds to your depth," head coach Jim Tressel said. "It adds to your skill sets. Those are two veteran guys."
Last season, Washington started all 13 games alongside Malcolm Jenkins and saw extensive action as teams threw away from the All-American corner. O'Neal served as a key player on special teams and occasionally saw action in OSU's defensive backfield, but he started the final seven contests of the 2006 season as a sophomore.
Now, the two are thrown into the fray in what is arguably the toughest game on the OSU schedule this year: a night road game against No. 1 USC that is nationally televised. As a result, the coaches are still trying to get a gauge on how much the duo can be counted on to have an impact this weekend.
"The bad thing is they haven't played, so it's like their first game for them," Heacock said following Wednesday's practice. "We're going to have to see how they come along and see what they know tomorrow and how they're doing as far as how much they're going to play."
Sophomore cornerback Chimdi Chekwa has stepped in to replace Washington during his absence and has looked solid if unspectacular. In two games, he has two tackles.
However, last season his skills were considered so vital that the coaches brought him into the game for obvious passing situations when the Buckeyes played their nickel defense. In doing so, they slid Washington over to fill the spot of Jenkins, who moved back to safety.
Will that happen this year now that Washington has missed the first two games? On Tuesday, Tressel said simply to "stay tuned," while a day later Heacock said that would not be decided until closer to game time.
A similar move seems unlike this year, though, due to the play of sophomore Jermale Hines. After being converted from linebacker to safety, he spelled strong safety Kurt Coleman as a starter for the first two games of the season while Coleman battled an ankle injury.
"He's a guy that came out the first game, first start, and we really thought he competed well," Heacock said of Hines. "The first part of the game was great when he just didn't get nervous. He acted like he had been there before and that's always a good situation. He's played well."
The addition of O'Neal further crowds the safety spot. Prior to his suspension, the senior served as the primary backup to Coleman and was pegged as a candidate to see playing time in OSU's nickel defense this season.
How that, too, will shake out remains to be seen, but Jenkins said the addition of both players is a positive for the unit.
"It's a good problem when you get some veteran guys back and you've got guys who have been playing and been playing well," he said. "It's hard to fit everybody in but whenever you have that much depth, that's a good problem."
One arena in which Heacock said each player should be able to make a noticeable impact is on special teams, where both figure to see action.
Both O'Neal and Washington spoke during fall camp about their desire to train throughout the first two weeks like they were going to play. Each served on the scout team and helped prepare the OSU offense to face Youngstown State and Ohio University before getting to reclaim their normal practice jerseys.
Still, practice reps are not the same as game reps, and both will be going in cold for the USC game in the latter category this season. Heacock said the track records of each player give him confidence enough that they will be able to have an impact against the Trojans.
"We would've liked them (to play earlier), but the good thing is they've both been around," Heacock said. "Shoot, Jamario started in a national championship game a couple years ago. He's played some football. Donald started all last year, so they've at least got some experience under their belt. We expect them to handle it."