Without the drama of the Tat-Five and the never-ending saga of Jim Tressell and his e-mail account, this winter and spring might have been a lot quieter, but there also might have been a lot of talk about how Ohio State would be replacing several starters on defense and how the play of that unit would be the key to another run at the MNC.
Of course, those things did happen, but now that the players are popping pads again and we are only a few days from the annual Spring Game, issues with the team on the field take prominence. Much has been made about how the offense has struggled, but due to the key suspensions on offense not many have been talking about the other side of the ball. I think we all know what the challenges will be for the offense, but I'd like to take a closer look at some challenges that the defense will face this season as they attempt to hold up the reputation of the Silver Bullets despite some key losses.
CHALLENGE #1: POOR FIELD POSITION AND SUDDEN CHANGES
Considering how thin the team is on the offensive line, and how inexperienced the runners and receivers will be, and how many questions there are about the starting QB, it is reasonable to expect that the defense will often be put in poor field position by an offense that is unable to convert 3rd downs or consistently move the ball on the ground. And whichever player ultimately wins the QB job for the first five games (Bauserman early, Guiton or Miller possibly late), he will have very little (if any) game-situation experience, and thus you can expect to see frequent "sudden change" situations where a turnover puts the defense back on the field almost immediately after they forced a punt.
CHALLENGE #2: A FRONT FOUR LOOKING FOR A LEADER
As Cameron Heyward takes his immense talent and vast experience to the NFL, the "nasty" quotient of the defensive line will suffer a bit. Last season, Heyward didn't always make the plays we expected him to, but he always set the tone for the team and showed the younger guys what hard work and determination could do for even a blue-chip athlete. However, Heyward is gone now and it's not clear which of the returning down linemen will become the heart and soul of the group. John Simon certainly shows potential, but he's still pretty young. Nathan Williams is the most experienced player, but his play was uneven and inconsistent last season. Nurturing the leadership skills of the guys in this group could go a long way toward establishing "attitude" among the young players on the line.
CHALLENGE #3: REPLACING THE PRODUCTIVITY OF HOMAN AND ROLLE
The past two seasons, Ross Homan has racked up over 180 tackles for Ohio State, and his cohort Brian Rolle has collected 169. While I have confidence in Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino, I wonder if their productivity will match that of Rolle and Homan. Furthermore, with an even less experienced player (Dorian Bell or someone else) taking over at the other linebacker slot, it starts to look like it may take a while before the defense starts to gel in the way that is necessary to pursue greatness. The other members of the defense knew over the last two seasons that they could count on Rolle and Homan making tackles when they got the chance. How will they adjust if/when those tackles are not made as consistently?
CHALLENGE #4: A DEPLETED SECONDARY
I know what you're thinking: "duh, what else is new?" Last season the secondary resembled a M*A*S*H unit with players going down nearly every week. The plus side of that is that it gave the younger guys a chance to get some valuable experience. It would be nice to have a full season of health out of guys like C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant, and especially Tyler Moeller. I have been waiting a while to see if out-of-stater Travis Howard and local product Jamie Wood step up and perform well in a game situation. Howard made his mark in the Sugar Bowl game, and it gave me some hope that the loss of both starting corners wouldn't hurt as much as it usually does. Further improvement from him and the others will be necessary if OSU wants to avoid long pass plays or watching accurate passers pick their zone apart.
CHALLENGE#5: THE SCHEDULE
2011 is one of those years where OSU plays 5 road games instead of the usual 4. This is mostly due to the addition of Nebraska to the line-up, but it also means they go to Illinois for the second year in a row. In addition to the much-hyped showdown in Lincoln NE on 10/8, there is an early-season trip to Miami (9/17), where the Hurricanes will surely be out for blood after getting rolled in Columbus last season. Also looming is a trip back to "Purdue Harbor" on 11/12, which occurs right before the Buckeyes wrap up the season with traditional rivals Penn State and That School Up North. Nebraska and Illinois have option offenses that put enormous pressure on a defense to play all of their assignments perfectly. This is not a problem for a veteran defense, but for a team that is replacing so many starters it looks like a perfect mismatch. Facing a hostile crowd and a variable offensive scheme will test the mettle of OSU's talented but inexperienced group.
Overall, it's easy to see why some pundits might be reluctant to rank Ohio State highly in the early polls. However, overcoming these challenges early in the season will set the stage for a big finish when the 4 suspended offensive starters retun and get re-acclimated to extensive playing time. The OSU defense will need to rise to the assignment early, or the team might see themselves out of the top 25 for the first time in a very long time.