Ohio State has its work cut for itself replacing linebackers Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant. Both were exceptionally active players, constantly around the ball and frequently coming up with big plays. Few players can match Wilhelm's productivity—121 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, and an astounding 19.5 tackles for loss from the middle linebacker position last season. Grant was only a shade less productive from the strongside, with 71 tackles, four sacks, 10 TFL and one INT, respectively.
The one returning starter, Robert Reynolds, should rise to the challenge of filling this productive void. Reynolds (62-1-3.5) will move from the weakside to Grant's strongside spot this season. He has exceptional range and should give the Buckeyes another pass rushing weapon, as Grant did a year ago. Also on the outside will be sophomore A.J. Hawk. He had a very good freshman campaign, earning one start on the weakside and tallying 26 tackles, 3.5 TFL and two interceptions.
Senior Fred Pagac and sophomore Mike D'Andrea will compete to take Wilhelm's spot inside. Pagac battled injuries last season, playing in nine games and finishing with 11 tackles, two for loss. D'Andrea is considered the heir apparent, touted as the next great Buckeye inside linebacker. He played in 13 games last season, finishing with seven tackles.
Ohio State has two stalwarts to replace in the secondary as well. Strong safety Mike Doss earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors with 107 tackles, five TFL and two interceptions. More importantly, he was a constant physical presence and a team leader. The Buckeyes also need to replace free safety Donnie Nickey, who contributed 67 tackles.
The Buckeyes, however, return a tandem of junior corners that can match up with anyone in the Big Ten. Chris Gamble may be the best corner in the country and thus far has gotten by almost entirely on athleticism and instincts. These aren't bad things to rely on, especially if you are as brilliant an athlete as Gamble, but it is scary to think how good he could be when or if he learns the nuances of the position. As it is, Gamble is a dominant, shutdown corner, who will be avoided at all costs this season. He had four interceptions and six pass breakups last year.
With Gamble taking one receiver out of the picture in most games this season, Dustin Fox will get a lot of attention on the other side. Fox is a very good football player if slightly maligned. Fluent in coverage he is not, but he makes a lot of plays. He is the leading returning tackler with 84, an extremely impressive number from the cornerback position. Despite taking some heat for his coverage skills, he did have three interceptions and 14 PBU last season.
Senior nickel corner Will Allen returns and will move to free safety. He had two interceptions last season. Taking over at strong safety will likely be sophomore Tyler Everett, who tallied 12 tackles and an interception in 13 games. Another scenario has Fox moving to strong safety if sophomore nickel corner E.J. Underwood earns a starting job.
In addition to Underwood, the top reserve is sophomore Nate Salley, who could see time at strong safety or corner. Senior corner Bobby Britton will be in the mix as well.
Expect much of the same this season as last. The Buckeyes front four will consistently win the battles inside, which should make the learning curve easier for Wilhelm's replacement in the middle, whether that is Pagac of D'Andrea. Deservedly so, a lot of attention will be on replacing Wilhelm and Doss. Ohio State will not replace them, but will more than adequately compensate for their departure, with players like Robert Reynolds, A.J. Hawk and Simon Fraser poised for standout seasons. With established stars such as Chris Gamble, and the line trio of Tim Anderson, Darrion Scott and Will Smith, the Buckeyes are not exactly hurting for talent. Team's will try to take advantage of a slight lack of depth in the secondary, but Ohio State's tenacious pass rush should limit opportunities downfield. Far from ailing with the departure of Wilhelm and Doss, Ohio State will more than likely improve defensively. The line should be even better, the linebackers similarly active and wherever he plays, Dustin Fox is likely to be improved, which will do wonders for the secondary. They may give up their fair share of yards yet again, but this will be one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. The national title defending question, though, is whether they can dominate the end of ballgames as they did last season.