Last year something happened in Ohio State football that I thought I'd never live to see the day: the defense, the pride and joy of Ohio State fans, players, and coaches, was suddenly the weak link on the team. The offense, which for years under Jim Tressel had been a strictly optional part of the college football experience, was now in the position of having to repeatedly bail out a leaky defense that gave up a big plays and huge chunks of yardage.
Of course despite that, the story has a happy ending. Ohio State went undefeated, and while the defense had some glaring holes, there was enough spackle in the garage to patch them up enough to beat everyone on the schedule.
This year the stakes are higher. The Buckeyes can actually play in postseason games now, including the BCS National Championship. To do that, the defense is going to have to replace several starters, overcome a major loss at the beginning of the season, and find a way to keep the middle of the defense intact.
Let's take a look at the various units on the defense:
On paper, this should be a strength of the team, with some caveats. The 2012 d-line was hyped up to be one of the best in recent memory and while it was good, it never reached that lofty status. Because of that, it might be wise to temper the wild expectations that some people have for tauted sophomores like Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence... and replace it with wild expectations for Joey Bosa and the fast charging Tommy Schutt!
Michael Bennett and Joel Hale are considered to be the starters for the defensive line through the middle, and given this group as a whole, the concern remains the same as last season: a lack of pass rushers who can cause consistent havoc on the outside of the line. Washington may end up listed as a DE, but he's really more of a hybrid 3-5 technique guy in the mold of a Cam Heyward. Spence may be the only real pass rusher in the group, so the hope is that Bennett and Hale are hardy enough to hold down the interior of the line themselves.
In any case, this should be a very talented but not particularly deep group who needs to prove themselves on the field as starters before we start going crazy.
This is where things start to get dicey. Shazier is the obvious leader here. His second half of 2012 was as good or better than any other linebacker in the country, managing 11 tackles for loss and three sacks in his last five games. Had he played like that from the outset he would've earned the Butkus in a walk, and ideally he'll continue that form in 2013.
After Shazier you've got Curtis Grant (who's been sidelined with a concussion and a career-long case of the not-quite-there-yets), Joshua Perry (who has a career total of five tackles), Camren Williams (who has four), and true freshman Mike Mitchell who has apparently worked himself to second in the depth chart at MLB despite, you know, being a true freshman.
Part of what will help here is the fact that Ohio State will likely continue playing a lot of nickel this season, meaning that linebackers won't be at a premium. Part of what won't help is the fact that unless Grant finally, finally realizes his potential, you're looking for answers from two guys with very little experience and a true freshman. If opposing defenses start finding soft spots in the middle of the defensive line, there's no Zach Boren walking through the door to save everyone's butts.
This is easily the most intriguing part of the defense. The defensive line and linebackers are fairly well settled, in part because of some solid starters but mostly because there are few options.
This is not the case in the secondary. Urban has recruited extremely well in the secondary with his first few recruiting classes, and there is a wealth of talent waiting to be utilized. If this group as a collective whole can compensate for a lot of whatever shortcomings might be in front of them, and could end up being the saving grace of the entire defense.
The safeties are CJ Barnett and Christian Bryant, who have both shown flashes of brilliance and complete idiocy on the field. Bryant in particular shows the potential to be an All Big Ten type of player, but the mental aspect of his game has to be more consistent, especially when it comes to coverage switching and positioning in general. Both of these guys are big hitters, and it'll also be interesting to see how they adapt to the new contact rules in the Big Ten.
Their young backups will also be very interesting to watch. Vonn Bell is apparently looking like the real deal in camp, as is Tyvis Powell. Pittsburgh Brown and Ron Tanner also provide some experience, and overall this is not a group hurting for depth.
Roby will almost certainly be suspended for a few games at least, so in his stead will likely be a guy like Armani Reeves or possibly Eli Apple. Doran Grant will have to step up in Roby's absence, because even with one of the best corners in the country on the field, some teams were able to pass all over OSU last season. If he can't hack it, expect one of the freshman lurking behind him to get a shot at the starting gig.
A few stats: last year, Ohio State had a passing defense ranked 78th in the country. To put that in perspective, only one Big Ten team (Northwestern) was worse in defending the pass, and the national champion Alabama Crimson Tide gave up an average of 70 fewer yards per game through the air. In 2012 Ohio State also gave up 24 plays of 30 yards or more, and six plays of 70 yards or more.
Ohio State should be improved on defense from last season; the scheme should be cohesive and consistent as a whole, there is a glut of potential playmakers in the backfield, and hopefully some of the younger players on the defensive line progress as well as many expect them to. Expect the Buckeyes to implement the "bend but don't break" style of defense that you saw in the Jim Tressel years. Yeah, I'm sure it made a lot of you pretty angry to see corners and safeties playing off their men, but the truth of it is that if you have superior athletes (as Ohio State does), it can work.
With that said, if the goal is to win a national championship then the two biggest areas that the Buckeyes must improve on are pass defense and giving up big plays. The latter can be solved by having a sound defensive scheme that is adhered to and sound tackling from the defense as a whole. The former will require individual efforts from players, some still unproven, to minimize the ability of opponents to get back in games quickly. Also key will be the play of the interior of the defensive line. It is crucial that they are able to clog up the middle without the help of linebackers, because the more a unit needs help, the more it exposes the rest of the squad.
In any case, the defense shouldn't have to be dominant in 2013, given the abilities of the offense. But it will have to be consistent, and improving from the 34th ranked defense overall in 2012 to a top 15 unit should be a reasonable goal.