In breaking down the spring performances for the Buckeyes, it might be
helpful to look not only at the strengths of this team but also the weaknesses,
the opportunities the Buckeyes might exploit, and the possible threats that
could derail each unit (and ultimately the team).
Strength - The strength of this year’s line is clearly in the
interior. With Quinn Pitcock, David Patterson, Marcus Green, and Sian Cotton
really showing their wares, this is the best DT unit in the Big Ten. Arguably,
it is one of the top five inside units in the country. Toss in Brandon Maupin,
the incoming Nader Abdallah, and possibly situational inside play by Joel Penton,
and I expect to see some serious hurting by offensive guards and centers in the
fourth quarter. Though Patterson and Pitcock’s talents are both known, keep an
eye on Sian Cotton. He moves around in the interior with the quickness of a
linebacker. He could easily add another 35 lbs and not lose that advantage.
Weakness - Defensive End lacks a serious speedster to come off the
end and replace Will Smith. Granted, guys like Smith don't grow on every tree,
but this could hurt in a big way. Fraser is a solid player at his DE slot, but
he has yet to show the speed or consistency necessary to disrupt plays on a
regular basis. Someone out of the trio of Mike Kudla, Jay Richardson, and Marcel Frost has the opportunity to step up; this will be their long awaited chance to
make their mark. If they cannot, it does not bode well for the position.
Threat - Youth. Ohio State is very young inside and out. Teams will
seek to take advantage of that. Delays, reverses, screens – these are all
misdirection plays that could go for big yardage if a young, aggressive line
forgets to play their responsibilities.
Opportunity – I see several opportunities for the Ohio State
defense. First, the Buckeyes have the bodies up front to stuff the run (again).
If they can make opposing offenses one dimensional, they can probably power the
Buckeyes to at least 8 wins on defense alone. Second (and dealing with
personnel), the coaches have enough bodies to experiment. They could overload
the line with a foursome of Fraser, Pitcock, Cotton, and Patterson. I would love
to see the offensive line that could block those four for more than three
seconds. Add a blitzing linebacker like Carpenter, Matthews or D’Andrea, and
someone is almost guaranteed to have a straight shot at the opposing QB.
Finally, the coaches have the opportunity to rotate defensive linemen as in past
years. By the fourth quarter, I (once again) cannot envision an offensive line
not being worn down with the kind of athletes Ohio State can throw at them.
Strength - Where do you start? This position not only has
depth, it has the versatility to rotate players for situational downs. Need to
stop the run? Put in Anthony Schlegel, A.J. Hawk, and Bobby Carpenter. Need pure
speed and the ability to cover short passes to ensure a team does not convert
third and long? Put in Carpenter, Mike D’Andrea, and Thomas Matthews. In the
next two years, I fully expect to see as many as 5 current players from Ohio
State drafted at this position.
Weakness – There just aren’t enough slots on the field. Matthews
is a senior and needs playing time. D’Andrea has the athleticism for OLB, but
he is positioned at MLB – behind Schlegel. Even the newest addition, Marcus Freeman, was showcasing his wares in the spring. How do you get them all on the
field? I am sure the coaches are going to tinker with the possibilities, but you
can only do so much.
Opportunity - With the glut of bodies at linebacker this year, I am
left wondering if Carpenter could not add 10-15 lbs and drop down to defensive
end for a season. He is an NFL player at linebacker, but he shows the speed,
quickness, and moves to consistently get to the quarterback when rushing the
passer. Just ask Ell Roberson who was his worst nightmare during the Fiesta Bowl
and I am betting he will let you know pretty quickly it was one blitzing Bobby
Carpenter. Being a great linebacker might get you drafted in the
first day, but being a fantastic defensive end will get you picked
in the top 20 selections of the NFL draft. I am left wondering what the defense
might look like with a 265 lb Carpenter coming off the edge and a linebacking
corps of Matthews/D’Andrea, Schlegel, and Hawk… At the very least, the
Buckeyes have a chance to play a modified 3-4. Put Patterson, Pitcock, and
Fraser (or Cotton) up front and then play cat and mouse with any 4 linebackers.
The offense likely won’t know what (or who) is coming (or if they are coming)
until it is too late.
Threat – Schlegel or D’Andrea must step up. For his part,
Schlegel must learn more about defending passing offenses; both he and the
coaches indicated this spring that he has work to do in that area. D’Andrea
must become more than just a great athlete in case of injury to Schlegel. Ohio
State cannot afford another season with weakness up the middle. Both losses in
2003 were ones in which teams ran right at the Buckeye middle linebacker
Strength – Safety. Despite losing Donnie Nickey, Will Allen, and
Michael Doss to the NFL over just the past two seasons, this team still has
serious talent with Donte Whitner, Nate Salley and Brandon Mitchell.
Weakness – Last season the Buckeye safeties looked too intent on
laying a fantastic hit on the opposition. Tackling is what defense is about. The
cornerbacks must be prepared. With Chris Gamble no longer manning the other
cornerback position, Dustin Fox will likely be playing the top receivers on
opposing offenses. He will have to put his play in a new gear to be successful.
E.J. Underwood/Ted Ginn/Ashton Youboty also better be ready. There were no tears
shed by opposing coaches when Gamble announced he was leaving to go pro a year
early, and offenses are going to test the new corners. Any weaknesses will be
exploited. You can count on it.
Opportunity – Even with the loss of Will Allen and Gamble, the Ohio
State secondary has a chance to be an improved unit. Whether it was injury or
complacence, Gamble never seemed to show the brilliance he was capable of last
season aside from the Washington opener and the Fiesta showdown against Kansas State. If Underwood can stay healthy and play the football (as he has in the
last two spring games), he has a chance to be every bit as good if not better
than his predecessor. I know that is a tremendous statement, but I believe it to
be true. Where Gamble was a project at corner, Underwood has been refining his
skills for the last three years at Ohio State and as a high school position
player before that. Incoming recruit Ted Ginn, Jr. has all the measurables and
abilities to be the next great corner in a line of NFL players OSU has turned
out. He could be an outstanding nickel – assuming he can beat out Ashton
Youboty and Brandon Mitchell, both fine players in their own right.
Threat – Will Allen might have been the forgotten man in some
respects. A leader, a playmaker, and a talented safety – Allen seemingly saved
more games than Rollie Fingers. Someone will have to step up to replace his
production. Fox and his counterpart will be tested. With the Buckeye front seven
one of the deepest and most talented groups in the nation, teams will see if
they can go vertical. Cincinnati, NC State, Wisconsin, and Michigan all have the
talent and coaching to beat the Buckeyes through the air.
Overall, I think this defense has the potential to be the best in the Big Ten
and probably a top five unit in the nation. Fans (and OSU coaches) cannot help
but love what they see at every position. Though I know it won’t happen, I
would donate a pinky finger to see:
CB – Youboty/Ginn and Underwood
S – Fox and Salley
LB – Hawk, Schlegel, and D’Andrea/Matthews
Dline – Fraser/Richardson, Patterson/Cotton, Pitcock/Green, and Carpenter/Kudla
The speed and athleticism of that lineup (assuming the players could master
their responsibilities) would be unmatched at least in the Big Ten and possibly
in all of college football. The secondary would not only be great in coverage
but also incredibly physical with Fox and Salley manning the safety positions.
The linebackers would track sideline to sideline defending the pass almost
equally as proficient as the run. While offensive lines concentrated on stopping
Patterson, Fraser, and Pitcock, Carpenter could act much like Will Smith –
rushing or dropping into coverage. You would hear the same things teams said in
2002 – “We knew they were good defensively, but we had no idea how fast they
were. Film just cannot prepare you for that…”
Strength – Obviously placekicker Mike Nugent is one of the top five
kickers in all of college football. He is simply clutch. If the longsnapper and
holder place the ball correctly, teams will find that Nugent’s range continues
to increase. This spring Mike Nugent put on a show for media, nailing some
long-range bombs of over 50 yards. A second area of strength would have to be
defending against kick and punt returns. The Buckeyes have excelled at not
allowing large chunks of yardage to the opposition over the last 3 seasons. 2004
looks to be no exception to the rule. This team is stocked with linebackers and
defensive backs who can and will play special teams.
Weakness – Punting. This has a potential to be a horrendous
nightmare for the Buckeyes. The Spring Game was just a harbinger of what is to
come if something does not change. Michigan’s kicking woes probably cost them
four wins over the last two seasons. Ohio State’s kicking prowess likely won
them as many if not more. Buckeye fans will discover the world of hurt suffered
by the Maize and Blue if one of the trio of Kyle Turano, A.J. Trapasso, or Josh Huston do not step up and start nailing consistent bombs ala Andy Groom and B.J.
Opportunity – The Ohio State return game has been woeful since Nate Clements departed for the NFL. This season, the Buckeyes appear to have some
bona fide talent at the returner position. Ashton Youboty is a north-south
returner who broke off large chunks of yardage in the spring scrimmages.
Santonio Holmes just finds room to maneuver and can break a long return at any
time. Ted Ginn, Jr. is said to be a fantastic player on special teams returns.
Threat – There are two dark stormclouds on this horizon. If none of
the punters step up, it could be a nightmare for the Buckeyes. Blocks, shanks,
and poor hang time can be turned into six points for the opposition in literally
seconds. The other danger is fumbles by the returners. Ginn Jr.’s, returns
were incredible at the Army game in San Antonio, but his lack of great ball
security was troublesome. Santonio Holmes’ fumble (though controversial to say
the least) against N.C. State helped them get back into the football game.
Turnovers on special team returns will hand you a loss more quickly than can be
Next week: The offense