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2008 Ohio State Preview - Defense
Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins
Ohio State CB Malcolm Jenkins
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted May 9, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Ohio State Buckeye Defense

Ohio State Buckeyes

Preview 2008 - Defense

- 2008 CFN Ohio State Preview | 2008 Ohio State Offense
- 2008 Ohio State Defense | 2008 Ohio State Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Ohio State Preview | 2006 CFN Ohio State Preview 

What you need to know: Sackmaster Vernon Gholston and productive all-around LB Larry Grant are gone. That's about the only negative on what was the nation's best total and scoring defense. The stunning decisions by LB James Laurinaitis and CB Malcolm Jenkins to return for their senior seasons, when they would've been first round draft picks this year, makes the already good-looking defense something special. All four starters return to the secondary that helped lead the way for the nation's best pass defense. Laurinaitis and running-mate Marcus Freeman will make up for the potential issue at the third linebacking spot, while Lawrence Wilson, Cameron Heyward, and Thaddeus Gibson are great-looking ends who should be camped out in opposing backfield. The key will be the tackles. Mediocre last season, at least by Buckeye standards, Todd Denlinger, Doug Worthington, Dexter Larimore and Nader Abdallah are expected to be far better.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: James Laurinaitis, 121
Sacks: James Laurinaitis, 5
Interceptions: Malcolm Jenkins, 4

Star of the defense: Senior LB James Laurinaitis
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore LB Tyler Moeller
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Dexter Larimore
Best pro prospect: Junior CB Malcolm Jenkins
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Laruinaitis, 2) Jenkins, 3) LB Marcus Freeman
Strength of the defense: Experience, secondary, NFL measurables across the board
Weakness of the defense:
Interceptions, tackle production

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: How do you replace the 14 sacks and all-around talent and production of a Vernon Gholston? You don't but Ohio State has options to rotate around and still get into the backfield. Bring in the guy who was supposed to out-Gholston, Gholston, 6-4, 274-pound junior Lawrence Wilson. The tackle-sized defender has been this close to blossoming into a superstar, but he didn't get his chance early on. Once he got the starting nod, he didn't have any luck breaking his leg in the season opener. Healthy again, he has the size, the motor, and the pass rushing ability to grow into a superstar. Now is his time.

On the other side will be sophomore Cameron Heyward, the son of the late NFL star Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. A monstrous 6-6, 287-pound who has the agility and athleticism of a much smaller player and the size to be a rock against the run. He made 33 tackles, 2.5 sacks and ten tackles for loss as a true freshman. A huge hitter who improved as the season went on, he's expected to go from very good to special, but he'll have to prove he can be the No. 1 guy with Vernon Gholston gone.

The defensive tackles were a question mark going into last year, and they turned out to be the team's weakest link. 6-6, 276-pound junior Doug Worthington made 24 tackles and a sack, but he took his lumps and now has a year of experience. More of an oversized end playing on the inside, he can play anywhere on the line and will move around where needed. With 4.75 speed in the 40, he has the step on the interior to grow into a dangerous pass rusher.

6-2, 292-pound junior Todd Denlinger is one of the team's strongest players, and now he has to play like it on the inside. The starter for the first half of the year, he struggled after suffering a knee injury finishing up with just 13 tackles and a sack. While he's not huge, he has all the measurables with speed and quickness to go along with his strength. There's no reason he can't put it all together and become a special all-around presence.

Projected Top Reserves: It takes a lot to get head coach Jim Tressel raving, but he gushes when it comes to the potential of 6-2, 300-pound sophomore Dexter Larimore. With tremendous quickness and one of the team's biggest players, he's a tough defender who'll beat people up on the inside with more time. He made 16 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss in a limited role, and he should be a major factor in the rotation behind Denlinger.

6-4, 300-pound senior Nader Abdallah will be a regular behind Worthington after making 18 tackles and a sack as a key backup. He struggled a bit with his consistency and he hasn't lived up to his hype and billing after a tremendous high school career, but the light appeared to go on this spring. He has the tools, now he has to use them.

Is Thaddeus Gibson the next Vernon Gholston? No, but the former linebacker has the speed and the pass rushing potential to be productive in a supporting role. He made 11 tackles and a sack, but he spent most of his time on special teams. Now he'll play behind Wilson as a 6-2, 240-pound speed rusher.

Watch Out For ... Larimore. The big, talented tackle has the moves of an end and the strength to hold his own on the inside against the run. He'll spend a few games camped out in opposing backfields.
Strength: Getting to the quarterback. Gholston might be gone, but his lost production will be made up for by getting more from all four spots. Unlike last year, the tackles will do a lot more to get into the backfield, while Wilson and Heyward blossom with more responsibility.
Weakness
:
Proven backup ends. Wilson and Heyward might be fine, but they'll need Gibson and former walk-on Tom Ingham to provide help in a rotation. There's help on the way from the recruiting class, but the less they're needed, the better.
Outlook: How good is the defense? The tackles, by OSU's high standards, had a bad year, Gholston was streaky, and top end prospect, Wilson, was knocked out for the year with a broken leg and the D still finished sixth in the nation in sacks, eighth in tackles for loss, and third against the run. The scary part about it is that now the tackles will be better. There's a good four-man rotation that should be tremendous, while Wilson should blossom into a star.
Rating: 8


Linebackers

Projected Starters: In one of the biggest upsets of the 2008 season, James Laurinaitis decided to come back for his senior season. In a weak year for linebackers, he would've been the first one taken and a near-certain top 20 overall pick, but instead he now has a shot to finish up his career as, arguably, one of the five greatest linebackers to ever play college football. A winner of the Butkus Award as the nation's best linebacker, and the Nagurski Award (in 2006) as the nation's best defensive player, he has made 236 tackles, 17 tackles for loss, nine sacks and seven interceptions in the last two seasons, highlighted by a 19-tackle day last year in the win over Wisconsin. He made 18 stops in the national title loss to LSU. Numbers don't begin to show just what he means to the defense. A tough leader and versatile player able to operate inside and out, and while he's not a freakish athlete, like A.J. Hawk was, he has 6-3, 240-pound size and the range to make plays all over the field.

While not the pro prospect James Laurinaitis is, 6-1, 239-pound senior Marcus Freeman could've turned pro early after finishing second on the team with 109 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 9.5 tackles for loss as he proved he was fully past the knee injury that knocked him out for the entire 2005 season. While he could stand to do a bit more against the pass on the weakside, he's not bad covering running backs out of the backfield and is a rock against the run. He was good from start to finish, but he started to blow up late in the year with 14 stops against Penn State, 18 against Illinois and 14 against LSU. He could still stand to get a bit bigger, but with his speed and athleticism, he's going to be a star as is.

Losing Larry Grant on the strongside hurts. Senior Curtis Terry might end up seeing too much time at fullback to be a regular starter on the outside. Originally considered the main challenger to take over the open starting strongside job, he worked more and more on offense as spring ball went on and could end up being too valuable to go back to the defense. He's a 6-1, 229-pound speedster who can also shine on special teams after missing all of last year with an ankle injury.

Projected Top Reserves:  There will be a rotation of players to fill the hole on the strongside with sophomore Tyler Moeller getting a shot. Undersized at 6-0 and 216 pounds, he's not big enough to be a full-time rock against the run, but he's very quick and is always around the ball. He's more physical than his size would suggest, but he'll likely end up transitioning to the weakside at some point in his career.

Working behind Freeman once again will be 6-0, 229-pound sophomore Ross Homan after making 12 tackles and two tackles for loss in four games. He has the speed and the all-around talent to grow into a major factor, after making 28 tackles as a reserve in 2006, but he has to bounce back after missing almost all of last year with a turf toe problem. He's extremely tough with unlimited range.

It's hard to see too much action playing behind Laurinaitis, but junior Austin Spitler is still a good reserve who'll make an impact on special teams as well as an occasional fill-in in the middle. He made 26 tackles and a sack, but he didn't do much to get into the backfield. A true middle linebacker at 6-3, and 234 pounds, he's being groomed for the 2009 starting gig.

Watch Out For ... the strongside job to be a bit of an issue. Whomever is in the spot will be helped by having Laurinaitis and Freeman picking up the slack, but it would be nice if one player emerged. The position likely won't be settled until the start of the season, if at all.
Strength: Laurinaitis and Freeman. An argument could be made that the USC linebacking tandem of Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing might be the best in America, but Laurinaitis and Freeman would be No. 1A, if not the best. These two make up for a lot of mistakes made by the rest of the defense.
Weakness
:
Proven, full-year production on the strongside. Larry Grant solved this problem last year, but now it's an issue again. The overall stats will turn out fine, but it would be nice if this could turn into a strength.
Outlook: With two All-America-caliber stars in Laurinaitis and Freeman, the linebacking corps will be among the best in America. There are good backups to count on in a pinch, but the starting strongside job will be the focus until Moeller, or possibly Terry, takes the gig by the horns.
Rating: 9


Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: James Laurinaitis returning for his senior season was a shock, and senior Malcolm Jenkins coming back was a jaw-dropper. One of the nation's best all-around defensive backs, the 6-1, 201-pound All-American has the size, the 4.3 speed, and the tackling ability making 47 tackles and a team-leading four interceptions. He has 137 career stops with eight picks, and now he'll make everyone's all-star team and be the premier cover-corner in college football. Everyone will stay away from him, but they did last year, too, and he still produced. His worth is more than just stats; he erases everyone's No. 1 receiver.

Returning on the other side will be junior Donald Washington after a productive 39-tackle, one interception season. A very smart, very athletic playmaker over his first two seasons, he held up well when teams were staying away from Malcolm Jenkins. While he had problems this spring and was suspended, sort of, for a while and might end up missing a game or two this September depending on what he did (the coaching staff is mum) and what the punishment is, he'll still be one of the Big Ten's better No. 2 corners. He'd be a No. 1 almost anywhere else.

Returning at strong safety is junior Kurt Coleman, a tough 5-11, 192 pounder who was considered a backup going into last year but finished up as the starter in every game making 64 tackles, third best on the team, with four broken up passes. While he's not all that big, he's added some bulk and is extremely strong for his size and is good at getting into the backfield when sent. While he's an excellent open-field tackler, he needs to do more when the ball is in the air.

Junior Anderson Russell is one of the team's most experienced and versatile defensive backs. Able to shine at either safety spot, he stepped into the free safety job and started every game finishing fourth on the team with 63 tackles and three sacks with five broken up passes. He proved he was more than fine after suffering a knee injury as a freshman showing off his 4.4 speed and full-throttle playing style. A decent hitter at 6-0 and 205 pounds, now he has to pick off a pass or two.

Projected Top Reserves: Expected to take over the strong safety spot last year was senior Jamario O'Neal, but he ended up getting pushed out of a spot by Coleman and will now be a backup and special teamer again. Tremendously fast and very versatile, he could play corner if needed, but he's too good a hitter to not be a safety. He only made 14 tackles and will make his biggest impact on special teams, but he can step in from time to time anywhere in the defensive backfield.

With great potential, but still a bit green, is junior FS Aaron Gant, who had problems with a foot injury and never made much of an impact last year making just six tackles. A big tackler, he should be fine against the run, but he needs playing time.

Looking to get into the corner mix are two good prospects, redshirt freshman Eugene Clifford and sophomore Chimdi Chekwa. They're both big, with the 6-2, 191-pound Clifford a bit bigger, and they're both fast, with the 6-1, 188-pound Chekwa a bit faster. Chekwa can do a little more and can move to safety if needed, but he has the skills to become a shut-down defender.

Clifford's a scary-good prospect with all the measurables, but he has to get out of the doghouse after being suspended from the national title game last year after failing a drug test. Tremendously strong, very athletic, and with a phenomenal size/speed ration, he can do it all. Now he has to do something after missing last year hurt.

Watch Out For ... a bit of an issue with suspensions early on.
Washington, O'Neal, and Clifford weren't technically suspended this spring, and they practiced, but they were suspended. No one's talking about why, and the speculation is rampant considering Clifford's previous for failing a drug test, and while he and O'Neal have been held out, Washington has been practicing with the team.
Strength: Stopping the pass. Of course, that's what the secondary is supposed to do. OSU was fourth in the nation in pass efficiency defense and first overall in pass D allowing a mere 150 yards per game. With all four starters returning, expect more of the same.
Weakness
:
Interceptions. Malcolm Jenkins came up with four and the rest of the secondary picked off a mere three. Coming up with more takeaways isn't a must for this defense's success, but it would be nice.
Outlook: There's a lot to be excited about as the nation's best pass defense brings everyone back. As long as there isn't a suspension problem with
Washington, O'Neal, and Clifford in the doghouse this off-season, everything should be fine. Jenkins should be in the NFL right now, but he'll be an All-America shut-down performer no one will want to throw at. There are strong backups, next-level starters, and for so much returning experience, enough youth to build around for next year, too. More interceptions would be nice, and everyone will have to do more with the pass rush to likely be a little bit weaker, but there's no reason to worry.
Rating: 10

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Aaron Pettrey was supposed to be the next great Buckeye kicker, and then senior Ryan Pretorius stepped in and became a star nailing 18 of 23 field goals including a 50-yarder. When he got the ball off, he nailed it missing just one attempt, but he got four blocked.
The walk-on from South Africa is a great athlete and has a good leg, but not a cannon. He can hit from 50 yards, but he doesn't have much more range. That's nitpicking; he'll be among the best in America.

Senior A.J. Trapasso has been excellent for the last four years averaging 40.9 yards per kick over his first three seasons and put 21 inside the 20 last year. With consistent accuracy and the leg to bomb the offense out of jams when needed, he should be an all-star and in the mix for the Ray Guy Award.

Ohio State usually has a tremendous return game, but it was awful last year on kickoff returns averaging a mere 17.65 yards per try. Maurice Wells and Ray Small will try to improve after struggling to break anything, while receiver Brian Robiskie will likely take over the punt return duties from Small. Robiskie only got seven tries, but he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt. Brian Hartline could see a few tries as well after averaging 11.4 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... Pretorius to be a Lou Groza finalist and Trapasso to be a Ray Guy finalist. These two are special kickers who'll be major weapons once again.
Strength: Big legs. Trapasso and Pettrey were consistent, showed good range, and don't miss. The only way to stop them is to block their boots.
Weakness
:
The return game. Small wasn't the answer. There's too much speed and too much talent up and down the Buckeye lineup to be this bad again.
Outlook: The kicking game should be the best in America with Trapasso certain to average over 40 yards per punt and Pretorius a near-lock to hit around 80% of his field goal tries. The coverage teams could stand to be a bit better, but they're hardly going to be a liability. The big issue is the return game. The punt return production was non-existent at times, while the kickoff returns weren't anything special. If OSU improves in both areas, there won't be any real knocks on the entire team.
Rating: 8.5