If it seems kinda strange that all the "new faces" on defense are strangely familiar, it's probably because they are. With the seemingly-constant talent turnover at a place like Ohio State, drop-offs seem like they'll be inevitable. After all, even Florida and USC, two of the country's pre-eminent defensive teams this decade, have down years on occasion on that side of the ball (2007 and 2009 respectively, for the aforementioned teams). But to us, it sure seems like the Senator has staved off these declines in production for the most part, and that probably has a lot to do with his rotation philosophy.
As we saw last year, Ohio State ran eight or nine guys deep on the defensive line, keeping the unit fresh at all times and making it one of the most dominant front fours in Jim Tressel's time at Ohio State. Similar rotations are employed elsewhere on the team, but the defensive line, where the constant bashing and battering from corn-fed Big Ten offensive lines wears on even the most well-conditioned lineman, is where it arguably has the greatest impact.
Thus, some of these "breakout year" candidates seem like old news, having already seen success in their time at Ohio State. However, in their first full year as starters, we'll finally be able to see whether they're flash-in-the-pan talents, future NFL draft picks or something in between.
Simon made an impact in limited time as a true freshman last year, something rarely seen along the front four of any BCS bowl-bound team. Apparently the only lineman on the team with a six-pack, according to coaches, Simon's burst, strength and precocious decisiveness on the line of scrimmage made him a beast to defend, especially for hefty Big Ten guards who thought they could take a play or two off against a 270-pound squirt of a true freshman. They were wrong. In limited time, Simon notched 16 tackles, 3.5 for loss, and a half-sack (no, not the dearly departed SAMCRO prospect, but a shared tackle on a ball-wielding quarterback). Those aren't worldbeating numbers, sure, but impressive, considering the bulk of those tackles came later in the season, against the best teams on Ohio State's schedule. Anyone who watched Ohio State last season will know that Simon made his presence known in more ways than can be measured on the stat sheet. Becoming a full-time starter in just his second year on the team is admirable, and on a line that already features beasts like Heyward and "Nasty" Nate Williams (alternatively, Nathan "But A G Thang" Williams), he won't be the victim of many double teams. I like his chances against pudgy farm boys from Iowa and Wisconsin.
I suppose you could say Williams has a had a "breakout game" here or there over his first two years a Buckeye as part of the aforementioned rotation. He was 3rd on the team in sacks last year, and notched two sacks in his freshman year in a game at Northwestern. But in his junior season, he has a genuine shot at establishing himself as one of the conference's leading pass rushers. Like Simon, he's not all that big at 6'3" 260, and has the range to play the LEO position with style, following perhaps in Vernon Gholston's footsteps in terms of size, rather than his immediate predecessor Thad Gibson. Also like Simon, he impressed early and is really only just getting his first start now because he had more experienced guys playing over him already. Let's cross our fingers and hopes he breaks the trend of LEO players leaving perhaps a bit too early, and returns for a monster senior season. But before I get ahead of myself, I will say this: at the end of the season, I wouldn't be shocked if it was Williams with the team sack title and not Heyward. No slight on Heyward, as I think any team worth its salt will be blocking him with three dudes, giving Williams plenty of opportunity to get after the quarterback.
I want to put at least one true dark horse in here, if only because Johnson fascinates me. The 2nd-to-last addition to the 2008 recruiting class (ahead of only TP himself), nobody, aside from the staff quite knew where Johnson would fit in on the team. Was he a safety? A cornerback? An emergency quarterback, taken only if Pryor opted to go elsewhere? Sure enough, he redshirted and wound up at safety, then responded to the questions by beating out Nate Oliver and Aaron Gant (who, in fairness, is recovering from a knee injury). He has big shoes to fill in the wake of Kurt Coleman, who I maintain was the soul of last year's defense. Johnson coud have a breakout year merely by doing many of the same things Coleman did: make game-saving interceptions, tipped passes and touchdown-saving tackles when no one else can. That's a high standard to hold anyone to, though. What this defense really needs is a ballhawk: no returning defensive back snatched more than two interceptions last year, and Chekwa and Torrence do not have a particular predilection for snatching the ball out of mid-air, and certainly not with the same theatrics Coleman was known for. Johnson patrolling the deep field adequately and coming up in run support might not be enough to make a true difference; he'll need to take away the deep right side of the field for opposing quarterbacks to fill that gap in the secondary.
Remember when I said some of these faces would be familiar? Sabino is entering his junior year at Ohio State, and to date, his most memorable play was a touchdown on a blocked punt, good footage of which I could not find on Youtube. Thus, we'll settle for this:
It seems like he knocked himself a bit woozy on that play as much as he did Stonum, but the point stands: Sabino is known for his tackling ability, drawing comparisons to Ray Lewis coming out of high school. It's literally illegal in Franklin County to not like a dude who turned down Miami and USC offers for Ohio State, so we'll give him a pass on not beating out Austin Spitler (who, to be honest, ended up solid in his senior season) and riding the pine for the better part of his sophomore year. He has all the skills in the world, and his move to the starting line-up gives Ohio State one of the fastest linebacking corps in the Big Ten. This team needs a big hitter beyond the front four aside from Rolle and Hines, and hopefully Sabino will bring that same intensity to his play.
Perhaps the second-most questioned non-special teams unit on the team, behind the ever-questionable offensive line, is the secondary. Torrence and Chekwa seem pretty competent, but it's tough to say either has developed a stranglehold on the starting job, seniority notwithstanding. Even if those two do retain their spots on the depth chart, JT's rotational philosophy will probably let quite a few younger guys see time, enabling one of the aforementioned players to impress as an underclassman.
What are your thoughts? Did I leave someone out? Who do you think's more (or less) likely to break out this season?