August 14, 2012

Versatility the key to Ohio State defense

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Follow Noon | Givler | Axelrod | Birmingham

If there's been one thing that's been consistent about Ohio State defenses in their recent history, perhaps it's been their inconsistencies. Not from a performance standpoint- more times than not, the Buckeyes have possessed some of the top defensive units in the country- but from a formation standpoint.

As a general philosophy, the Ohio State coaching staff has recruited versatile players who can play multiple positions on the defensive side of the ball. And as a result, the Buckeyes have had flexibility with their defenses and the way that they line up against opposing offenses.

Whether it's the 'Viper/Leo' position, which utilizes defensive end/outside linebacker hybrids, or the 'Star' spot, which utilizes safety-linebacker hybrids in the nickel back role, the Buckeyes prefer to have the ability to put different positions in different spots at different points in each game. And that versatility has come much to the chagrin of their opponents.

"Every offensive lineman has to prepare for a multitude of different players. 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," defensive end John Simon said. "You have to game plan for yourself and prepare for two different kinds of players, if not three different kinds of players. So I think that versatility really helps us."

If there's anybody who knows about the flexibility it takes to play on an Ohio State defense, it's Simon. After spending his first two seasons in Columbus playing on the inside of the defensive line at tackle and nose guard, injuries to teammates forced him outside and into the Viper/Leo position.

The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Simon responded with a team-high seven sacks and now enters his senior season as the Buckeyes' starter at the position he played a season ago. He could also find himself on the other side of the line playing OSU's strong-side defensive end position should Nathan Williams return from injury to reclaim the 'Leo' spot.

"Each year, I move a little further outside, so it's nicer on your body the further out you go," Simon said. "You don't get beat up as much. But you got to appreciate those big guys in the middle."

Simon's not the only player on the Ohio State defensive line who possesses versatility. Fellow starters Johnathan Hankins, Michael Bennett, and Garrett Goebel have each spent time playing on the inside and outside of the OSU line.

And after learning how the Buckeyes' have been coached, that shouldn't come as any surprise.

"It's definitely easier to just have one position. When they teach us, they don't teach us just one position," Bennett said. "We have to know the whole D-line, the linebackers and why they do what they do, 'cause that makes it easier if you know why you're doing what you're doing."

On the backside of the defense, the 'Star' position has allowed players like Jermale Hines and Tyler Moeller to give the Buckeyes the speed of a defensive back to cover a slot receiver, without losing the size of a third linebacker in run support. This year's roster lacks a true player who fits the mold of the traditional Ohio State 'Star,' but starting safety Christian Bryant has played it in the past, and he's shared reps at the position this fall with Corey Brown and freshman Devan Bogard.

"The star position's definitely something that's going to stay," Bryant said. "Just being physical, my speed, just playing fast. That's really all you've got to do to play nickel. You've got to be able to cover man-to-man."

The Buckeyes have brought in two new coaches on the defensive side of the ball this year in co-defensive coordinator Everett Withers and cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs. But all indications are that Ohio State's versatility isn't going anywhere. In fact, it may only be increasing.

"I hope it's real versatile because it will need to be," Withers said of his first Ohio State defense. "That's what these young guys give us, the ability to do some things that maybe in the past haven't been done."

Withers pointed to freshmen defensive linemen Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence specifically as players who can add a new dimension to the Buckeyes' defense. That's just fine with Washington, who after arriving as a defensive end, finds himself backing up Hankins at the defensive tackle spot.

"What allows me to play outside is my speed. For me to be 289, I have a lot of speed and I have a lot of power. So you combine those two, you can be very deadly coming from the outside," Washington said. "I just got to keep working on the inside thing and I think one day I can dominate like Johnathan Hankins."

Without having even played in his first college game, Washington is aware of the problems that the Buckeyes' defensive philosophy can present for an offense.

"It allows us to trick the offense," Washington said. "Throw different things at them to confuse them. It'll be an advantage for us."


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