Ohio State Practice Insider - Defensive Line Sets the Tone
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The key for any defense is to first get pressure up front, and after losing stalwarts like Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, it seemed like that pressure might take a hit in 2011. But if Thursday's practice was any indication, it looks like that pressure might be just as heavy as it's always been.
Even with defensive end Nathan Williams out again on Thursday (he was also out on Tuesday), the Buckeye front four was consistently getting into the backfield to disrupt the day.
Photo by Jim Davidson
People know about John Simon. He showed off his speed in the one-on-one drills today, and he rarely gets out-muscled at the point of attack. Johnathan Hankins gets mentioned more than anybody on the Ohio State defensive line, but the guy who is grabbing everyone's attention once again is freshman Michael Bennett.
He started at out defensive tackle with the second unit on Thursday, but by the end of practice he was working with the first-team at defensive end. He rotated with Adam Bellamy, and Bellamy would slide inside and Hankins would slide outside. The amount of shifting and sliding that the defensive line is capable of is pretty amazing.
But Bennett wasn't out there with the first team just to be out there. He was out there and making plays in the backfield. For instance, he slid past Marcus Hall and dipped his shoulder under Michael Brewster to blow up a passing play in eleven on elevens.
It's not clear if he would have been with the first unit had Nathan Williams been available, but it's certainly clear that Bennett is going to be in the rotation this season.
The Walking Wounded
On Tuesday, Luke Fickell said that none of the injuries to the Buckeyes were serious enough to concern him, but the sheer number of defensive players out on Thursday may have concerned him a little.
Tyler Moeller was out again, and Christian Bryant worked at first-team Star in his absence, as well as second-team safety. Defensive end Solomon Thomas was also out again. Linebacker Chad Hagan did some drill work, but he was in a yellow jersey. Defensive backs DerJuan Gambrell, Julian Vann and Jeremy Cash were also held out.
None of these injuries appeared serious.
The Depth Chart Solidifying?
There really haven't been any changes to the first unit in a couple of weeks. Things still look like this:
Leo - Nathan Williams
DT - Johnathan Hankins
NT - Garrett Goebel
DE - John Simon
WLB - Andrew Sweat
MLB - Storm Klein
SLB - Etienne Sabino
Star - Tyler Moeller
CB - Travis Howard
FS - Orhian Johnson
SS - C.J. Barnett
CB - Bradley Roby
Photo by Dan Harker
As we have progressed through camp, it was growing apparent that Roby was winning the cornerback job from Dominic Clarke, and on Thursday Roby was exclusively with the first unit.
J.T. Moore is backing up Nathan Williams, and freshman Steve Miller is behind Moore. Adam Bellamy and Michael Bennett are solidly in the defensive rotation. Freshman Joel Hale has been working with the second unit, but he will have to show that he deserves to be in the eight-man rotation this season.
As has been the case throughout camp, when the defense goes to a nickel, Sabino is still moving to inside linebacker and Storm Klein leaves the field.
Corey Brown was again with the second unit at safety. It says a lot about how far Brown has come when you consider how well Jamie Wood played this spring, and how well Zach Domicone has played this summer, and yet Brown has seemingly bypassed both.
The second unit has been looking like this:
Leo - J.T. Moore
DT - Adam Bellamy
DT- Michael Bennett / Evan Blankenship
DE - Joel Hale
WLB - Stewart Smith / Scott McVey
MLB - Jordan Whiting
SLB - Ryan Shazier / Tony Jackson
Star - Christian Bryant
CB - Dominic Clark
S - Christian Bryant
S - Corey Brown
CB - Doran Grant
The third unit gets a little muddled because it consists of everybody else.
Are the Pups Biting?
Since John Cooper was in attendance on Thursday, let's reference one of his favorite sayings about young football players: "If a dog's gonna bite, he'll bite as a pup."
There are indeed some pups biting out there for the Buckeyes right now. As it stands, there are currently four freshmen in what would be considered the two-deep. Michael Bennett, Joel Hale, Ryan Shazier and Doran Grant have all been solidly working with the second unit this week.
Other freshmen of note have been working with the third unit. Curtis Grant has been the lone third-string middle linebacker so far throughout camp. Defensive linemen Steve Miller, Chase Farris and Kenny Hayes have all been getting reps with the third unit. Miller and Farris are seeing more snaps than Hayes, who is splitting time with with the likes of Darryl Baldwin.
With Nathan Williams out, however, Miller has had a chance to get reps with the second unit, though he hasn't really stood out.
Age is Just a Number
Thursday was Luke Fickell's 38th birthday, and after practice he noted that you're only as old as you let yourself feel. Well, it was likely that he was feeling a little bit older than normal given the drills that he ended practice with.
Fickell and his defensive coaches ran some pursuit drills where Mike Vrabel would snap the ball to Fickell, who would then drop back and throw it to either Taver Johnson or Paul Haynes who were angled out a bit "down field".
The fun part came at the snap, when six or seven Buckeye defenders would release off the line and come after Fickell. He would then either throw it to one of his coaches, or tuck and run up the middle, or run a bootleg, or try some sweet juke moves. Then once the pass was released, the swarm would then chase the ball again and glom on to whomever caught it.
There were a couple of times where Fickell nearly had his Ohio State sweatshirt ripped off of him from oncoming marauders. It was like watching kids take on their uncle who was convinced that he still had some game left in him.
Oh, and don't think Vrabel was just going to snap the ball and let his best bro get jumped. There were a couple of times when he threw in a chip block to an unsuspecting attacker, allowing Fickell a little more time to throw one of his patented left-handed darts to Johnson or Haynes.
Cornerback Travis Howard had an ankle lightly wrapped, likely from tweaking it on Tuesday, but he still played very well. He's got an incredible reach, and timely heavy hands. He broke up a couple of catches simply by pounding a receiver's hands as they were in the process of catching the ball.
Luke Fickell was also working with the Leos and Sams in drills today. For the most part this summer he has been walking around from station to station, but he was getting in bent-kneed stances with his players and working with them one on one.
Co-defensive coordinator Jim Heacock was in Johnathan Hankins' ear a few times today during drills. He was reiterating that Hankins needed to stay low, and if he did that, he would win many more battles than he'd lose.
Even though it looks like Dominic Clarke has lost the starting battle to Bradley Roby, he continues to play well. It makes you think that Roby moved ahead simply because he's playing that well.
Haven't seen a ton out of the linebackers to this point because we're not able to see them when they are actually hitting. That will change on Saturday when we get to see the Jersey Scrimmage.
One thing is clear, Etienne Sabino still knows how to rush the passer. More than anything, that may be the reason he stays in on passing downs in nickel situations.
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