2010 Spring Question Marks: Defense

Many rarely have questions about the Ohio State Silver Bullet defense, but coordinator Jim Heacock is never among that group. With his spirit in mind, BuckeyeSports.com continues its spring preview by looking at what holes the unit needs to fill and how spring will affect those battles. In addition, the Buckeyes' special teams have plenty of unknowns.

Part I of the spring burning questions can be found here. What follows is Part II, which focuses on the defense and special teams.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Is John Simon ready for prime time?
The obvious answer would appear to be yes, given Simon's emergence as a player the Buckeyes trusted in all situations during his true freshman year of 2009. He finished with 16 tackles including 3.5 for loss in his debut campaign.

Now, he seems like a probable starter on a line with plenty of skill returning after being one of the most dominant units in the country last year. Cameron Heyward will continue to star at end with Dexter Larimore ticketed for a spot in the middle and the dynamic Nathan Williams seemingly ready to fill Thaddeus Gibson's role on the edge.

Simon is the least experienced of the likely starters and with Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington and Robert Rose gone there isn't much proven depth behind him. As a result, the freakishly strong Youngstown native can help out the defense in a major way by showing he's ready to go in the spring, especially when it comes to run-stuffing given Jim Heacock's proclivity for moving Heyward inside in some passing situations.

Bonus question: Will depth continue to fill out with such players as Goebel and Keith Wells improving and Melvin Fellows now healthy?

LINEBACKER: Is a starting job in the cards for Etienne Sabino or will any of the team's talented youngsters jump into the fray?
Sabino arrived at Ohio State with plenty of hype and seemed ticketed for major playing time, but he's spent most of his first two seasons on special teams and playing only in reserve duty.

Part of that is because of the players in front of him – it's not like position coach Luke Fickell has suffered from a dearth of talent over the past two seasons – but there have been repeated comments that Sabino needed to start playing the game less mechanically and more instinctively.

Now, the opportunity to step into the starting strongside spot vacated by Austin Spitler beckons, and Sabino – who has 12 tackles in two years – seems like the obvious favorite. He brings plenty of size to the party and there's no doubting his physical skills at all.

The good news is that people say he's ready to take over, and plenty of players have conquered mental hurdles like those Sabino has faced in his first two seasons.

The bad news for Sabino – Storm Klein, Jonathan Newsome and Dorian Bell won't let him have the job without a fight. Klein played special teams in 2009, Newsome was earning more and more time before a midseason injury and Bell came to OSU with five stars attached to his name. All have plenty of talent, and Fickell has never been shy to shuffle the deck to get the best players on the field.

Other than the third spot the Buckeyes seem set after an excellent season from Ross Homan and one of big plays from Brian Rolle.

Bonus question: Will Rolle become more consistent and regain the playmaking abilities he showed early in 2009?

DEFENSIVE BACK: Will Orhian Johnson hold down the safety position?
The cornerbacks seem set in stone and Jermale Hines showed his considerable gifts in his time on the field a season ago, so the big question concerns the starting role left open by Kurt Coleman.

Johnson seems in line to get the first crack at it if the 2009 rotation is to be believed. After all, the signing day steal in 2008 stepped in at Indiana when Coleman was held out because of suspension and made three solo tackles while not looking out of place as the team's fifth DB.

But now with Coleman – whose otherworldly football savvy and big-play abilities can't be replaced easily – and Anderson Russell gone, Johnson will be forced to take on even more responsibility. He fared well in his limited time last year with 10 tackles in 11 games, but there's no telling how he'll step into the limelight now. The sophomore will also have to show his slight frame can hold up to the pounding too.

If Johnson stumbles, such players as fifth-year senior Aaron Gant, Nate Oliver, C.J. Barnett and Jamie Wood will get their chances. And then there's perennial man without a position Tyler Moeller, who worked with the safeties in the team's 6 a.m. workouts in early March.

Bonus question: Can Moeller find a place to contribute at either safety or star – and be healthy enough to do it?

SPECIAL TEAMS: Who will take over the kicking and punting roles?
This one is plenty direct – between senior Devin Barclay, sophomore Ben Buchanan and true freshman Drew Basil, the Buckeyes need to find a kicker and a punter.

There is some experience at kicker, where Barclay famously took over after Aaron Pettrey's injury last year and booted the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl. The former soccer player has shown the ability to make field goals but his leg leaves something to be desired on kickoffs, perhaps opening up the race to the strong-legged Buchanan and Basil (who has graduated early to join the team in the spring).

When it comes to the punting job, Jon Thoma was solid but rarely spectacular in 2010, and it's sure noted punting aficionado Jim Tressel will want to find someone who can change the game with a boot. Buchanan has split his time between placekicking and punting in his career and Basil has said he's open to doing both, but some decisions would seem to be in the offing as the situation sorts itself out.

One thing seems for sure: this year's spring kick scrimmage will take on added meaning.

Bonus question: Will the kickoff coverage team improve after struggling a season ago, especially in the Rose Bowl against Oregon?

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