Defense Faces Questions This Spring

Plenty of talk has been made about how Ohio State hopes to replace its primary offensive weapon in Chris "Beanie" Wells, but there are more than a few questions on the defensive side of the ball as well. Take a look at what head coach Jim Tressel thinks about his defense as spring football gets underway.

As he met with reporters for the first time to preview Ohio State's spring practice, Jim Tressel found himself talking about his team's offense. The head coach of the Buckeyes has to address a number of changes across the board, headlined by the loss of the team's primary weapon in Chris "Beanie" Wells.

But for all the talk about how the Buckeyes will have to change their offensive identity, the fact remains that there are a number of question marks on the other side of the ball as well.

"It will be a different dynamic this spring," Tressel said. "We do know a lot less about who we are and they probably know a lot less about what it takes but yet I feel very comfortable with their talent level.

"To me the key is going to be how quickly can we mature, learn, mesh, build that team understanding. That's why we're really anxious because the only way you can really build those things is to be together."

The one area where the Buckeyes appear to almost have too much of a good thing is the defensive line. The only key loss to that group is defensive tackle Nader Abdallah, who turned in the best season of his college career as a senior.

Returning are two fearsome pass rushers on the outside, a few battle-tested guys inside and a number of youngsters hoping to crack the rotation. Chief on the list is junior Thaddeus Gibson, a player who led the team with five sacks last season.

Senior tackle Todd Denlinger is going to see some time as a short-yardage blocker on offense from the tight end position, but Tressel said he could not put Gibson in a similar role.

"Thaddeus probably couldn't add much to our blocking world," Tressel said. "He might go sack our guy. Wherever there's a quarterback, he goes and hits them."

At the other end, sophomore Nathan Williams will try to build off the success he had (4.0 tackles for loss, two sacks) in limited duty (nine games). To stay on the field, he will have to hold off the likes of Cameron Heyward and Lawrence Wilson, the latter of whom is returning from a second consecutive season-ending injury.

Inside, Denlinger will mix and match with Dexter Larimore and Doug Worthington while Heyward and Robert Rose can figure in as well. Add in redshirt freshmen Garrett Goebel, Willie Mobley and Keith Wells – once he returns from offseason surgery – and you have an appreciable amount of depth Tressel said he is excited about.

"I think we've got a talented defensive line," he said. "I think you're going to see a lot of mixing and matching and different combinations. You've got a good group there. They love to compete. There is excellent leadership there."

How well that unit performs will go a long way toward determining how well the back seven – or eight – plays this season. The Buckeyes lose their top two linebackers in James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman, and although junior Ross Homan boasts two years' worth of experience it has largely come when OSU is in its base defense – an occurrence that is becoming more and more uncommon.

If the Buckeyes had a game tomorrow, Tressel said Homan and senior Austin Spitler would probably be his two starters. The third linebacker spot would likely then go to Jermale Hines, who would play the role of hybrid linebacker/defensive back.

The fight to become the third linebacker or to knock Spitler or Homan from their starting roles will fall to a number of talented-yet-largely-untested youngsters.

"This is going to be a big spring for a lot of those guys, Etienne Sabino and Brian Rolle and Austin Spitler and Andrew Sweat and Tyler Moeller because let's face it, James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman took a lot of the reps," Tressel said. "There's a lot of reps to be had. I think we're a long way from knowing for sure how it's going to unfold but you're going to see a lot of different combinations in there."

The Buckeyes return two safeties with extensive starting experience in Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell, but there will be plenty of competition in the secondary. Gone are four-year starter Malcolm Jenkins and part-time starter Donald Washington, leaving just junior Chimdi Chekwa to hold the fort.

Senior Andre Amos is finally healthy and could have the inside track to the starting spot opposite Chekwa, but again a number of young players will battle this spring for a spot on the two-deep. The head coach mentioned the likes of Devon Torrence, Travis Howard and C.J. Barnett as candidates for those spots.

"I would think at a lot of positions you're going to see different things different days," Tressel said. "They're all going to get a lot of reps with a lot of different units with Chimdi in the first group and by themselves in the second and third group and rotate them. We're hoping to be able to mix and match and have a lot of guys play with each other, a lot of guys compete against each other."

It all adds up to a defensive picture with a few stalwarts and a number of new faces hoping to make their mark. How well they grasp concepts this spring might go a long way toward determining if this is a rebuilding year or a reloading year for the OSU defense.

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