Buckeyes welcome back most of defense from 2011
By RUSTY MILLER
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) While everyone seems to be talking about Urban Meyer's new hurry-up offense at Ohio State, the defense has been quietly going about its business.
OK, maybe not exactly quietly.
"I would say practices are a little more enthusiastic. A lot more fast tempo," said lineman John Simon, acknowledged as the leader of the defense. "It's good for us. That's what we need. It's making guys think on their feet and think fast. That's how games are played, so it's getting us prepared."
The Buckeyes return nine starters on defense from a team that floundered at times during a 6-7 season. The defense was 27th in the nation in points allowed and 19th in yardage permitted.
But with Simon and Johnathan Hankins playing well up front this spring, and corners Travis Howard and Bradley Roby holding down the fort in the secondary, there are high hopes for a big improvement this fall.
There's an edge to Meyer's practices that touches every player at every position. Almost every drill, every bit of conditioning, is a head-to-head competition.
"It's fun. Because last year there really wasn't that much competition," Hankins said. "To see each other fight every day every play is fun. Practice is faster."
Meyer has gushed about Simon, in particular, this spring. Summoning up the name of a quarterback who led one of his Florida teams to a national championship, Meyer referred to Simon as "Tebowish."
Simon deflects that kind of high praise.
"It's a great honor everything that he says about me," said the senior, who led the team with seven sacks last season. "But we've got a lot of guys on this team who deserve that honor as well."
Mike Vrabel, who coached linebackers last year, is now in charge of the defensive linemen. He said having two great players on the line in Simon and Hankins has made his job simpler.
"The better they play, the better I appear to coach," he said. "When you're blessed with great guys and great players, it's easy to coach those guys. We've got to get the other guys going up to that standard. It's easy for the other guys to see what our expectation is because they don't have to look too far. They can look to those guys right there - how they compete and how they play."
So far, the defensive line has been overpowering. Getting a consistent rush on the quarterback and stopping the ground game has made it much easier for the secondary.
Asked about the benefits of having an intimidating front line, cornerbacks coach Kerry Combs said everything stems from the play of the biggest guys.
"They're our best friends. Those guys are getting up-the-field pressure on the quarterback, not giving him time to throw. They're phenomenal," he said. "As a result, if you can get pressure with a four-man rush, and put seven in coverage, you've got a great chance to cover. If you have to get your pressure out of five- and six-man pressures, it's a lot tougher on our guys. Right now we're thrilled with the amount of pressure that the D-line is putting on the offense."
Ohio State has not revealed a depth chart at this stage of spring workouts. But Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy also figure to see a lot of playing time up front. Nathan Williams has been held out this spring due to an injury, but he should be available for preseason camp. At linebacker, Storm Klein, Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant and Etienne Sabino are the top returnees, with safeties Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett among the top players expected to fill out the secondary.
Rather than playing tight one-on-one coverage as the corners have in years past, this year they're changing the approach.
"Our coaches felt we had a great group of athletes who should have more picks than we had previous years," said Howard, who had two of the Buckeyes' 13 interceptions a year ago. "Their new addition coming in was for us to be more ballhawks and have more ball-awareness. Playing off, that gives us more opportunities to make plays on the ball instead of just being pressed up man to man on a guy and not being able to see where the ball is coming."
That's the biggest and perhaps only change on defense. While the offense is putting in an entirely new philosophy, on the other side of the ball the Buckeyes - under defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who was interim head coach last fall - are just fine-tuning what they've already learned.
"It's definitely nice being in the same system," Goebel said. "I understand the defense and now I can just go out there and play and help other guys learn."
Saturday's annual spring intrasquad scrimmage should draw a large crowd of fans despite chilly weather and the possibility of rain. And it will also provide a glimpse of just how far the defense has come since last season.
Follow Rusty Miller on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/rustymillerap .
Updated April 18, 2012