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August 2, 2012

The top 10 questions facing the Ohio State defense

Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

One day from now, Ohio State will have finished its first fall camp practice under new head coach Urban Meyer. Despite the team facing a bowl ban and coming off of a 6-7 season in 2011, excitement is running high in Columbus for Meyer's first season as the Buckeyes' head coach. Over the next three weeks, several questions will be answered about an OSU team that will be entering what will no doubt be a historic season 30 days from now. With that in mind, here are the top ten questions facing the Ohio State defense at the start of fall camp:

1. How good are the linebackers?

With all due respect to Penn State, one could make a legitimate argument that Ohio State has taken the title of 'Linebacker U' over the past 15 years. The Buckeyes reputation for possessing great linebackers, however, took a hit a season ago when starters Etienne Sabino, Storm Klein, and Andrew Sweat struggled against both the run and the pass.

With Klein and Sweat both now gone from the program, it will be up to a pair of sophomores in Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant to return the Ohio State linebacking corps back to prominence.

"Ryan has shown a lot of commitment, is one of the biggest things I think he's shown. Obviously last year he was a lot smaller. I think he's up to about 230 now. He still runs like a gazelle," Sabino said. "Curtis has done like a 360 as far as from when he came in to where he's at now. As far as his approach and his demeanor, his work ethic I feel and just everything. I'm just excited to play with those guys. I have all the confidence in the world in the both of them."

2. How early will Noah Spence contribute?

Despite not taking over until late November, Meyer managed to rescue to the 2012 Ohio State recruiting class, and a big reason for that was his ability to land Spence, the No. 1 rated defensive end in the country. Considering the 2011 Buckeyes lacked a consistent pass rush, there's a good chance that the 6-foot-4, 245-pound end could step in and play right away in 2012.

Defensive end John Simon said he wouldn't be surprised to see both Spence and true freshman Adolphus Washington contribute immediately for the Buckeyes.

"They all have the potential. With the work ethic that they've shown any one of them can, if not all of them," Simon said of the freshmen defensive linemen. "They're extremely motivated and highly enthusiastic about playing football for Ohio State."

3. Who else will rush the passer?

While Simon has a firm grip on one defensive end slot, it remains to be seen who will be joining him on the other side. One candidate is Adam Bellamy, who showed promise in 2011. Another is sophomore Steve Miller, who has impressed Simon with the improvements he's made this past offseason.

"Steve may have had the best offseason out of anyone on our team. You know, I love Stevie, and just working with him every day and seeing his dedication," Simon said. "We're always working out together and he's going to have a big season."

4. Is Bradley Roby the real deal?

As a redshirt freshman a season ago, Roby burst on to the scene, solidifying himself as the Buckeyes' top corner. His improvement this offseason has often been touted by the OSU coaching staff and the media that covers the Buckeyes, but he is yet to gain the national recognition that most elite corners at Ohio State have received.

If Roby is going to make that leap from local star to superstar, it will start with this fall camp, where the redshirt sophomore will have to establish himself as the leader of the Ohio State secondary.

5. Who will start opposite Roby?

The one true position battle still ongoing on the defensive side of the ball heading into fall camp is on the other side of the secondary, where incumbent Travis Howard is battling with Doran Grant to start alongside Roby.

While Howard appears to have the advantage thanks to his experience as a starter in 2011, the fact that the sophomore Grant was listed as a co-starter with the fifth-year senior exiting spring practice can only be viewed as a positive sign for his chances in the position battle.

6. Will Nathan Williams return?

One of the biggest blows suffered by the 2011 Ohio State defense came in the season-opener, when defensive end suffered a knee injury that required him to undergo arthroscopic and microfracture surgery. The fifth-year senior has been working diligently to return for the Buckeyes in 2012, and Simon expects to see him playing again some time this fall.

"I see Nate every day and he's working extremely hard, a couple hours a day every day in that rehab room to get back as fast as he can," Simon said. "He'll be back very soon, and we're looking forward to it."

7. What impact will the return of Luke Fickell have?

Another loss to last year's Buckeyes defense came when Fickell was named the Buckeyes' interim head coach and was forced to divert some of his attention from the side of the ball he know's best. With Meyer's arrival, Fickell is back serving as the Buckeyes' co-defensive coordinator, and the Ohio State defense is glad to have him back.

"Any time you can put Coach Fick's full attention on defense, it's a scary thing," Simon said. "You add him with the coaching staff that we have on the defensive side of the ball, the game plans are going to be awesome, it's going to be up for us to players to execute them."

8. What will happen to the star position?

For the first time since 2006, the Buckeyes are lacking an ideal player to play their linebacker-defensive back hybrid 'star' position. Formerly occupied by speedy linebackers-turned-safeties Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller, it remains to be seen whether Fickell will keep the 'star' position as a part of the Ohio State defense.

One possible candidate to play the 'star' is safety Christian Bryant, who despite being smaller than his predecessors at the position, saw some time playing the position in 2010.

9. How versatile can they be?

Between the 'star' position and defensive end-linebacker hybrids such as Williams, the past Buckeye defenses have provided great flexibility for Fickell. Past Ohio State teams have been capable of playing both 4-3 and 3-4 looks, and whether or not this year's team can do the same will depend on the development of its personnel this fall.

"That versatility really helps us I think. Because then every offensive lineman has to prepare for a multitude of different players," Simon said. "One guy might be more of a power guy, the other might be a speed guy. And that change up is probably like seeing a fastball to to a change-up."

10. What happened last year?

Despite all of the questions that this season's defense will face, one basic question must be asked: what happened a year ago when the Buckeyes defense looked nothing like the Silver Bullets of past years?

The Buckeyes' leader on the defensive side of the ball, Simon has a theory.

"That's one of our big emphasis' as a defensive senior unit; we want to finish and start fast. Maybe some games we played a great second and third quarter, and the first and fourth weren't good, or vice-versa, we started fast and finished strong but in the middle we got lost somewhere," Simon said. "We're really trying to put together a complete game, every game, and that'll help us be successful."



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