Do some research on what pundits are saying about the 2014 Ohio State defense, and you’ll hear first and foremost about the defensive line, which hasn’t looked this good on paper in nearly a decade. Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, and Noah Spence were stat-sheet-stuffing machines in 2013, accounting for 39 tackles for loss and 22 sacks. Add Adolphus Washington and Steve Miller, and this is a truly fearsome front.
But in coordinator Chris Ash’s new 4-3 base, there will be a high demand for players in the back seven who can respond with consistent accuracy to what’s happening at the line of scrimmage. This stress is likely to fall primarily on the linebacking unit, which finds itself short one Ryan Shazier. One Ryan Shazier, by the way, was worth two or maybe three standard-issue Joes, so the task of filling his spikes is about as daunting as it gets.
That challenge falls mostly to Joshua Perry, who will slide to the weak side to replace Shazier. He and the other linebackers will need to do a much better job as a unit of converting from initial pass reads to run pursuit in play-action scenarios. A lot is being asked of a group of guys who are in various stages of relative anonymity and underachievement. The five returning players who logged tackles at the position a year ago fell short collectively of Shazier’s numbers in every major category. It’s time for someone to step up.
Perry will be joined by Curtis Grant and Darron Lee, but the real story is the emergence of five-star freshman Raekwon McMillan. Next to Michigan’s new stud corner Jabrill Peppers, McMillan is the highest-impact newcomer in the conference, and he did plenty in spring ball to back up the hype. He will absolutely play a role from day one – his insertion into the starting lineup may just be a matter of time.
Assuming the guys up front have control of things, the coverage unit will have more flexibility and protection than a year ago. That’s a pretty grand assumption, and the loss of guys like Bradley Roby, C.J. Barnett, and Christian Bryant is an issue, no matter what last year’s numbers say. Sophomore safety Vonn Bell will need to grow up quickly to help lead this unit; corners Doran Grant and Armani Reeves are more than adequate, but even Roby got torched at times in 2013.
The defense didn’t need a shot in the arm: it needed a shot in the brain. Breakdowns in coverage and bad pursuit angles plagued them throughout much of last year. Was it just a scheme issue? We’ll find out soon enough.
On special teams, the best news is that punter Cameron Johnston and return prodigy Dontre Wilson are both just sophomores. Johnston really sails his punts, and he’ll be counted on again to push opposing offenses back as far as possible to allow maximize drive length and give the defense a chance to make plays.
The key battle is between true freshman Sean Nuernberger and senior former walk-on Kyle Clinton. The first is young and athletic and can really boom it. The latter is better established with the program and is well regarded for his work ethic. How much it matters is also part of the equation: Meyer is not a kick-field-goals-from-the-20 kind of guy. In fact, he’s only called for 21 field goals the last two years. Calling it a key battle may have been a bit ambitious.
Nevertheless, special teams are important, especially to Meyer. For a team still figuring some things out on either side of the ball, field position looks to be an important part of the overall strategy.•
Personnel File: DEFENSE
Armani Reeves, CB
The junior’s field time will increase drastically with Roby in the NFL, and his natural playmaking abilities should shine in the added opportunities. He had seven pass breakups and one interception in backup duty.
Raekwon McMillan, LB
Meyer has said that McMillan, a true freshman, acts like a grown man.” At 6-2, 240, he looks like one, too. He and RB Curtins Samuel were the first to have their black stripes removed. The breakout has already begun.