Even with offensive standouts like Beanie Wells, Ted Ginn, Santonio Holmes, and Maurice Clarett, among others, the strength of every Jim Tressel-led team has been the defense. This year will be no different. Last season, Ohio St's D ranked first in the Big Ten and fifth in the nation in scoring (12.5 ppg), yards (262 pg), and turnover margin (+1.3 pg). The Bucks will return seven starters from last year's dominating unit.
The biggest losses are defensive captain S Kurt Coleman and pass rushing specialist DE Thaddeus Gibson. Also departing were LB Austin Spitler and DT Doug Worthington. While those are some big holes to fill, there is plenty to get excited about on this side of the ball.
The number one reason to get excited is number 97. DE Cameron Heyward has been on the brink of stardom the past two seasons, and looks poised for an All-American senior year. Heyward led the team in sacks with 6.5 last season, and continued to show improvement each week. Nathan Williams has seen lots of playing time each of the last two seasons, and is more than ready to become an every-down performer on the other end.
Dexter Larimore is back at one of the tackle positions, while the other will most likely be filled by sophomore John Simon. Listed at 270 lbs, Simon is one of the smaller lineman on the team but just as strong as any. If he should falter, fellow soph Garrett Goebel and monster freshman Jonathan Hankins (6'4, 335) will fill the void.
The strength of the defense, and the whole team for that matter, is the linebacker position. Led by seniors Ross Homan and Brian Rolle (pictured above), seeing this unit atop the Big Ten would be no surprise. While Penn St has always held the nickname of "Linebacker U," I'd be willing to put Chris Spielman, Mike Vrabel, Andy Katzemoyer, Na'il Diggs, Matt Wilhelm, A.J. Hawk, and James Laurninaitis up against anyone.
That tradition stays alive with these two veterans running the show. Both Homan and Rolle have a knack for being where the ball is, whether that involves tackling runners in the backfield or intercepting passes (seven combined in '09) over the middle, and coordinator Jim Heacock lets them run wild. There is competition on the strong side of the ball. Special teamer extraordinaire Etienne Sabino appeared to come into spring holding the position, but now it seems Andrew (never let 'em see you) Sweat will start when the Bucks come out onto the field in Thursday's opener. The coaches were impressed with Sweat's work ethic and determination as he was constantly in the gym with Homan all off-season. Expect to see both guys on the field quite a bit.
There is lots of experience in the secondary, where a trio of seniors return as starters. CB Chimdi Chekwa is the leader of the group and a preseason All-Conference pick. Fellow corner Devon Torrence and SS Jermale Hines can both provide the big play (Hines had a pick-6 in the Wisconsin win last year) but at times get caught going for it too often and either miss a tackle or get flagged for interference.
There will be a huge dropoff at the other safety position, where inexperienced sophomores C.J. Barnett and Orhian Johnson (combined 14 career tackles) will try to fill the huge void left by Coleman. An interesting story to keep an eye on will be Tyler Moeller, a former linebacker turned safety, who missed all of last season with a head injury.
The Buckeyes also need to replace last year's kicker and punter, as Aaron Pettrey and Jon Thoma both graduated. Pettrey had one of the strongest legs I have ever seen from a collegiate kicker, but was often inconsistent from short range. OSU may be better off with 27-year-old former soccer player Devin Barclay, who filled in for the injured Pettrey the second half of the season, making the game-clinching kick over Iowa in OT. Ohio St will enjoy addition by subtraction in the form of Thoma leaving, where I really think anyone would be an improvement. That anyone will be Ben "The Cannon" Buchanan, who struggled in the spring game but has a strong leg and may kick off as well. (I really wish I could take credit for "The Cannon," but I heard it elsewhere.) The Bucks have a whole slew of guys that can return kicks. Brandon Saine and DeVier Posey should get the majority, but we'll also see Dan Herron, Jordan Hall, Dane Sanzenbacher, and possibly Jaamal Berry.
A very pleasant sight for Buckeye fans will be not seeing USC on this year's schedule. Ohio St replaced them with another tough opponent in Miami, whereas SC will take the week off to surf, frost each other's tips, and text each other on their Blackberries (sometimes while surfing/tip-frosting). A reliable source intercepted this text from Matt Barkley to Carson Palmer: "dude u thaught u made bank here? i jst got 500 bux 4 turning in a essay on exestenalism or smtg lol. totaly copied it off the net lol. gtg bro, catch you on the waves. -barx"
Ohio St opens the season this Thursday (49 hours and counting...) at Ohio Stadium against the Thundering Herd of Marshall. I can't believe we are this close to kickoff. The Bucks come into this game as 28.5-point favorites and shouldn't have a problem, but remember, this team often lets a bad team hang with them for awhile at the beginning of the season (Navy in '09, Ohio in '08, Akron in '07, and yes, Marshall in '04 where we needed a 50+ yarder from Nugent at the buzzer).
September 11 is the showdown with Miami. Coach Randy Shannon is starting to bring the 'Canes back to prominence, and QB Jacory Harris is a sleeper Heisman contender, but we saw what they could do against a Big Ten defense in last year's Champs Sports Bowl where they were dominated by Wisconsin. Plus, the game will be in The Shoe. Miami is a good team, but I'm not too worried.
After the Hurricanes, OSU has two easy non-conference games at home against Ohio and Eastern michigan before Big Ten play. The conference schedule begins with their first road game at Illinois and home versus Indiana, two teams that should finish near the B10's basement. Obviously you never know how things are going to go, but it looks like the Bucks won't have their second real test of the year until October 16 when they travel to Wisconsin. The Badgers boast a very high-powered offense, led by preseason Conference MVP RB John Clay, QB Scott Tolzien, and TE Lance Kendricks.
OSU will be looking for revenge in the Oct. 23 match up against Purdue at Ohio Stadium. Then they travel to Minnesota before getting a week off. The bye week could not possibly come at a better time, right before the three biggest games on the schedule - Penn St, at Iowa, and michigan. Penn St may be a little down this year with the loss of QB Daryll Clark, but will still be very talented and this series always seems to offer a close game. At preseason #9, Iowa appears to be the toughest contest on the schedule. For years I have been saying Iowa has been overrated, and I'm not at all sold on QB Ricky Stanzi. That being said, the Hawkeyes have a tough defense (DE Adrian Clayborn has All-American written all over him) and you know you can count on a Kirk Ferentz team being prepared and determined.
As Andy mentioned in a post the other day, this will most likely be the last time Ohio St will end their season against michigan, as the two appear to be heading to different sides of next year's realigned Big Ten. I guess it doesn't really matter when we beat these gap-toothed, uneducated, hillbillies, but I really enjoy doing it to close out the year.
Looking at the entire schedule and placing a win, loss, or too-close-to-call label on each, the Fighting Brutus' are looking at 8-0 with Miami, @Wisconsin, Penn St, and @Iowa being the make-or-break games.
So once again Jim Tressel will lead the Buckeyes into a season with one goal in mind - winning a National Title. This goal seems very realistic, but as with any team in any sport in any year, lots of things will have to fall our way. Terrelle Pryor limiting his mistakes and playing consistently is certainly the first thing that needs to happen. If it does, you can at least expect another Big Ten title, and possibly another shot for the BCS Championship. Only time will tell.
Up first: Marshall, Thursday 7:30, Big Ten Network
I mentioned earlier about some of OSU's slow starts in the past - don't expect that to happen here.
Prediction: Ohio St 39 Marshall 10
Tuesday, August 31