The 2012 Buckeye defense's performance was reflective of its component parts—uneven. Though OSU had all-conference performers at several positions, they also had significant holes that were at best papered over.
Those same gaps remain for next season, and whether they are adequately filled may be the biggest determination of next season's defensive success. With that, let's review the Buckeyes by position and explore who may emerge for 2013.
We start with the position that was the strength of 2012 and also the most inexperienced for 2013.
First, though, a quick position review to illuminate the discussion. As discussed, OSU plays a one-gap 4-3 under or over.
That means that each defensive lineman is shaded into the gap they are responsible for. The defensive line positions are denominated by that specific gap or 'technique' (starting with 0 over the center and working out, where even numbers are head-up over the offensive linemen and odd numbers are in the gap). So OSU has the following defensive line positions: nose guard (or 1-technique), 3, 5, and stand-up weak end (or what OSU calls the 'Viper').
With that framework in mind, starting from the inside and working out, nose guard was manned by Garrett Goebel, with significant minutes from Joel Hale and Tommy Schutt. Goebel did what was asked of him, which was plug the middle and create piles when double-teamed.
Other than at times against Wisconsin when the Badgers were able to create inside movement, Goebel was largely able to control the interior line of scrimmage. Goebel was largely a non-factor as a pass rusher, and often came off the field on third down, in favor of either Johnathan Hankins bumping down or for Schutt.
Because of position, Schutt was perhaps less noticed than fellow freshmen Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington but he played extensive minutes at both nose and 3, and was the strongest of the three against the run. The fact that Schutt was inserted late in the season in passing situations also indicates that the coaches believed he has more explosiveness than his fellow interior linemen.
Moving outward, Johnathan Hankins manned the '3' technique. Hankins' primary attribute is that teams simply cannot run at him.
As I noted following the Michigan State game, the '3' technique is a crucial fulcrum for this defense. From the under, the 3 is to the boundary. When an offense puts their formation strength to the boundary and runs that direction, the 3 must control the line of scrimmage and redirect the running back.
Then, when OSU is in its nickel over, the 3-technique is to the field and again in the crucial position to reset the line of scrimmage against front side zone plays. Hankins filled this role superbly. He was unblockable at times and opposing offenses often had to game plan to double-team him or run away or outside.
If he has a weakness, it is that he disappears at times and is not explosive rushing the passer.
John Simon bumped down to his more natural 5 technique once Nate Williams returned from injury. Simon battled through injuries all season, but as he became healthier (before his season-ending injury against Wisconsin), he correspondingly became increasingly dominant.
Throughout the season he was difficult to run at but was not a significant factor as a pass rusher in the early season. But as his quickness improved he was clearly OSU's best pass rusher and his first step was difficult for offensive tackles to match.
He was particularly effective when he was able to have a 'two-way go' and beat offensive linemen to the inside. To that end, OSU bumped him inside at times, where he was also effective as a pass rusher.
Michael Bennett and Washington also filled the 5 technique in backup duty. In the preseason Bennett repped with the ones at '5' technique while Simon played Viper. However, Bennett's groin injury and Williams' return changed that.
Bennett was slow in returning, but the quickness for his size became apparent as the season progressed, particularly from the Penn State game on. He was the starter at 5 against Michigan and would play 3-technique in pass downs, with Hankins dropping inside.
Washington was also fairly versatile. He began the season at 3 but moved back to 5. In fact, he even played some second-team Viper when Spence was limited with injuries. Washington made perhaps the biggest strides amongst the defensive linemen throughout the season.
He became far sturdier against the run and also displayed a knack for rushing the passer. This was of course exemplified by him beating projected first-round left tackle Taylor Lewan with a rip technique.
Washington has the prototypical build for a strong-side defensive end and is already displaying a high upside.
Moving to Viper, perhaps nothing was a better surprise for OSU than Nathan Williams' return from microfracture surgery. Williams was not the same pass rusher as he was pre-injury. But he made up for that in versatility, both with his ability to set the edge against the run as well as roam from the Buckeyes' 30 package (seen above) and drop in coverage.
In fact, Williams' more natural position may have been Sam linebacker. As I noted following the Purdue game, numerous offenses feature inverted veer. This was a very difficult play to execute against OSU, in part because both Simon and Williams were quick enough to play both the quarterback and running back.
As to the other weak-side ends, perhaps no backup played more this season defensively than Spence. Spence's athletic ability is readily apparent. While he was constantly applying pressure, he just missed on multiple sacks this year because he needs to be less reliant on his speed to run around tackles, and more sound in his technique in using his speed to beat them through their outside shoulder.
Yet this should not obscure the improvements Spence made, particularly against the run in maintaining leverage and strength at the point of attack. And clearly the Ohio State coaching staff believed Spence and Washington were two of their best pass rushers, as by season's end they were both normally on the field on third down.
This naturally leads to the question of who will start and play next season. The real issue is who replaces Hankins at 3 technique. I expect one of Bennett and Washington to play at 3 and the other at 5. My early guess would be Bennett would bump inside to 3 technique where he can use his quickness, but it remains to be seen whether he can hold the point of attack against double teams.
OSU may also rotate liberally based on situations, with Hale at NG and Schutt at 3 in clear run situations, with Schutt bumping down and Bennett at 3 otherwise. But my early prediction is Spence at Viper, Washington at 5, Bennett at 3, and Schutt at NG. Then look for Hale and Steve Miller—who flashed as a pass rusher—to battle for time, as well as a bevy of talented freshmen. In an interesting twist, this line may be more adapt at rushing the quarterback than stopping the run, in contrast to this year's unit.
We now move from the defense's strength to its weakness. OSU struggled throughout the season—particularly at Middle or 'Mike' linebacker—until Zach Boren stopped the bleeding. Again, it is helpful to understand each position to evaluate the respective linebacker's performance. As one can see in the above diagram, OSU's defense uses two inside linebackers and an outside 'Sam' linebacker, who aligns on the outside half of the tight end, jams him, and sets the edge.
In theory (off the the idea that teams normally run to the formation strength) the Mike should be slightly bigger and more of a plugger, while the Will slightly smaller and more able to run sideline to sideline. But in practice their roles are often interchangeable. In fact, in the recent past, OSU flipped those roles, as the more typical 'Mike' Ross Homan played 'Will,' and Brian Rolle, the typical 'Will' played 'Mike,' because OSU played so much nickel over that the positions become inverted.
In any event, OSU had difficulty finding anyone to play Mike. Curtis Grant was pegged to play the position, but got very little run early as OSU was playing so much nickel and went with Etienne Sabino and Ryan Shazier. When he did play he looked lost in pass coverage. Next, Storm Klein was generally a step slow, a problem that was only exacerbated by his bad back.
As such, it may not be an extreme stretch to say that stumbling into Zach Boren playing Mike preserved the Buckeyes' undefeated season, if only by applying a tourniquet. Boren was not particularly comfortable in pass coverage, but in Boren the Buckeyes finally had a Mike linebacker that played downhill and attacked the hole. This allowed the other defenders to then use leverage and flow to the football without having to take on blocks downfield.
In addition, the coaching staff largely turned Boren into an asset versus pass coverage, where he was given an automatic delayed blitz if the running back stayed in to block.
The Buckeye linebacking corps was also assisted by the fact that Ryan Shazier's play was so improved in the season's second half that it was effectively as if OSU added a second new linebacker. To begin the season Shazier overly relied on his athletic ability, overrunning plays and using poor tackling technique.
But given the Buckeyes' other personnel issues, it was easy to forget that this was Shazier's first year starting. And sure enough, these problems disappeared as Shazier got more experience. The turnaround was quickly evident, as Shazier became the opposite player of what he was by always maintaining inside to out angles and becoming a sure tackler.
At the third linebacker, Sabino was largely unsung, but played well throughout the season, particularly when he returned from injury. This is reflective of the fact Sabino was a more natural Sam and thus had his best games against pro-style teams.
Against spread teams he played Mike early as the second linebacker, where was never a natural. It was unfortunate that he had to miss a part of his senior season, as he is a great example of someone who continued to work hard to develop.
Moving on to 2013, Josh Perry flashed in limited action at Sam and looks prepared to fill that hole. But Boren's departure again leaves a hole at Mike linebacker. OSU is hopefully in a better position simply because they have more talented options.
Cam Williams was the backup Mike this year and may get first shot. Specifically, though, the more important question is, who is the second best linebacker after Shazier? From a linebacker's perspective you want to be one of the top 2 guys, because it is the difference between playing 100% and 40% of the plays from scrimmage.
So Perry may also get a shot inside. But OSU certainly needs to be more solidified at the position at the end of spring practice than they were this year, because they do not want the same uncertainty heading into the fall.
I will start with the nickel or 'star' position, which is the natural fulcrum between the linebackers and secondary. Again, as soon as a team goes to 10 or 11 personnel, OSU will go to their nickel look.
That means against spread teams OSU will almost always be in the nickel over versus spread teams, and a good portion of second and third down in any game. The result is that the star is more important than the third linebacker. In essence, the star is the replacement for the Sam linebacker. Once an offense removes a back or tight end, that edge player to the field is walked out to the alley.
As such, the star must be able to both defend plays to wide receivers in the underneath flat as well as apply themselves in the run game. This position is thus critical for OSU but was as much a hole this season as middle linebacker. After being spoiled for a decade, the Buckeyes did not have a player that fit this role.
It is thus no coincidence that teams had success attacking the underneath flats with wide receiver screens and the like. In terms of personnel, Corey Brown started the season, but did not seem to be the physical presence needed. Orhian Johnson then replaced him and performed adequately and at least rendered the the problem less acute.
But again he was not physically or temperamentally suited for the role. Things got even thinner when CJ Barnett went out, with Johnson having to move back to safety and Brown coming in.
For 2013 the star, along with Mike, remain the critical positions that OSU must again fill next season. Brown will get another shot to win the position, along with Devan Bogard and others.
Fortunately, Barnett's return solidified the secondary proper. A healthier Barnett provided the Buckeyes a physical presence at safety, one they increasingly inserted into the box against run teams while playing cover 1 behind.
Barnett was also far more comfortable filling inside-out then he was providing contain support, an alteration the Buckeyes made in-season. After this strategic change he became a far more active presence on the outside.
A healthier Barnett was also able to play man coverage against a team's No. 2 field receiver, allowing the Buckeyes to alternatively play cover 1 and cover 4 without the earlier season breakdowns.
Barnett's counterpart, Christian Bryant, also became more comfortable throughout the season playing the middle of the field free safety. Bryant's upward trajectory mirrored Shazier's. Bryant also morphed into a player who maintained proper leverage and was a fundamentally sound tackler from center field, turning his athleticism from a liability to a strength. And he also became a bit of a ball hawk.
Bryant's improved play was critical to the Buckeyes cutting down on allowing explosive plays.
While Travis Howard perhaps never fully lived up to his athletic potential, he and Bradley Roby teamed to form the Big Ten's best corner duo. Howard was susceptible to being overaggressive against double moves in an attempt to make plays.
In the early season he was also liable to mental lapses in maintaining deep zone coverage, as well as failing to come up and be physical against wide receivers catching the football in the underneath flats. Yet Howard noticeably improved this latter trait as the season progressed, becoming a more physical player.
He was also solid in man coverage. OSU's early season qualms with playing cover 1 were never a concern with their corners but rather their interior defenders. As the defensive coaching staff increasingly played more man coverage the cornerbacks became an increasing strength.
This was certainly the case with Roby, as he could make a case for being OSU's defensive MVP. Roby's ball skills were obvious. Even when he was beat he showed a knack for closing back into position and making a play on the football. But what made Roby so effective was his well-roundedness.
As noted, Roby's physicality from corner allowed OSU to play quarter-quarter-half against teams that wanted to play their wide receivers away from him, allowing OSU to use him as the force defender and permitting OSU to roll their coverage to the field. As such, teams could not simply scheme to go away from Roby—he was still able to make himself a factor.
Assuming Roby returns next season he should be a preseason All-American candidate and the Buckeyes' defensive backfield should be the defense's strength. Howard is the only departing starter and Doran Grant played well in significant action.
Grant may be more physical than Howard and thus perhaps has a higher ceiling. If he can ably step in then OSU should be able to rely heavily upon their secondary in a way they have not been able to in recent seasons. In turn, an experienced defensive backfield can allow the position groups in front of them to gel.