Seniors Expect Flexible Buckeye Defense

Jim Tressel tapped two senior leaders to represent his defense at the Big Ten media kickoff in Chicago, and both Doug Worthington and Kurt Coleman expressed optimism that they can be part of a defense that keeps up the tradition of strong units in Columbus.

To hear Doug Worthington and Kurt Coleman tell it, there is no secret to what allowed the Ohio State defense to ascend from merely good to dominant as the 2008 season wore on.

Defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and his staff did not find any magic combination for using the players at his disposal, nor did head coach Jim Tressel coin a motivational phrase to fire up his charges.

The difference in the final seven games was, well, the players themselves.

"The scheme never really changed," said Coleman, a senior safety. "It was all about our attitudes. I think James (Laurinaitis) and Malcolm (Jenkins) kind of sat us all down and said, ‘We need to step up. In order for us to be a great team, we cannot give up any points. Everybody has to do their jobs.' And all of a sudden, the intensity started picking up in practice. That's kind of where it took off. Our practices were so much better and it translated into game play."

Worthington agreed, and the senior defensive tackle took issue with the suggestion the defenders were held back by the game plans earlier in the season, as some seemed to think was the case.

The improved play had more to do with an appeal to the pride of the defensive line after a pride-wounding 179-yard rushing yards by Wisconsin on Oct. 4.

"I wouldn't say (the coaches) unleashed us," Worthington said. "I would say we got more confidence. We got our swagger. The defensive line got a lot of ridicule and we gave ourselves more pressure than anybody could give us, talking and hollering at each other and watching more film and getting more workouts in and getting more on ourselves. I think that helped everybody out because we started having more fun being on the football field, started having great practices and being livelier and just doing everything we can to make sure we had fun and play to the best of our abilities."

Coleman gave credit to the improved play of a better motivated defensive line.

"I think everything starts up front," the safety said. "It makes our job easier if they are on point. You could see last year the Wisconsin game was a rough game for us. Their offensive line was pushing us around and it made things harder for us, so after that game, we all sat down and that's when the defense took off."

Laurinaitis and Jenkins, All-Americans at linebacker and cornerback, respectively, have moved on, but Coleman believes the key to replacing those three-year starters along with linebacker Marcus Freeman (another starter since 2006) and defensive linemen Nader Abdallah (a two-year contributor) will be an overall level of experience that is considerably high.

Coleman and Worthington are two of four third-year starters on a unit that lost four regulars from the starting lineup but only seven players from the two-deep. While junior defensive end Cameron Heyward and fifth-year senior safety Anderson Russell have started the past two seasons, fourth-year junior Dexter Larimore and fifth-year senior Todd Denlinger have also been regular contributors on the defensive line and fourth-year junior Chimdi Chekwa played significant minutes at cornerback in 2007 and 2008 as well.

Fourth-year junior Ross Homan is the only starter back at linebacker, but among those most likely to challenge for the spots Laurinaitis and Freeman vacated stands a group including fifth-year senior Austin Spitler, fourth-year junior Tyler Moeller and true junior Brian Rolle, all of whom have been standout special-teamers for at least the past two seasons, along with sophomores Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat, both of whom also made names for themselves covering kicks and punts last season as true freshmen.

Straddling the role of linebacker and safety is Jermale Hines, another third-year player who enjoyed a big role last season.

Furthering the faith of Coleman and Worthington that this defense can avoid a letdown without the stars of the past three seasons is the willingness of Heacock to mold his attack to his players' strengths.

The coaching staff's flexibility was on display during spring practice as the team dabbled in various tweaks to the familiar 4-3 base defense and the nickel and dime packages, including a 3-4 base look that allowed pass-rushing specialist Thaddeus Gibson to stand up and back off the line for more freedom to do what he does best.

"It plays a lot better into our personnel," Coleman said. "It allows Thaddeus to stand up and come off the edge a lot better."

Gibson is not the only beneficiary, however.

"It makes things a little more cut and dried," Coleman said. "I know this guy is going to be in this gap, so I am responsible for this gap. The same thing for the safeties. We know where we have to be before the play even starts. If it's a run, we know where the play is going to come through."

Despite those positives, Coleman only expects the 3-4 to be something of a change up.

"We're definitely going to stay with the 4-3, but I think it will best suit us if we can throw that (3-4) in to challenge opposing offenses," he said.

Worthington said to look for the 3-4 "maybe once in a while" and endorsed Heacock's willingness to experiment in the spring.

"With the personnel we have – Tyler Moeller and Thaddeus Gibson and Jermale Hines – they can play so many different things, it gives our coach a gift bag of goodies of putting anybody where they want to put them and doing almost any defense they need to stop an offense," Worthington said. "I think with today's offenses, you've got to be more versatile and give them some different looks and make sure they're not seeing the same things every day. Our coaches know that and they've been trying to show us different films and different tapes to make sure we see what other defenses have done and to make sure we fit best and are where we excel."

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