COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio State defenders have the nagging feeling that they somehow let everyone down a year ago.
And they’re not happy about it.
“No, we can never forget (last year), because we’re going to use that as a building block to help us work on this year,” linebacker Ryan Shazier said. “I never want to be a part of another team like that. We had the worst record in Ohio State history, or tied for it.
“I don’t want that to ever happen again.”
He’s not alone.
The part about the worst record isn’t accurate, of course, but the Buckeyes’ 6-7 mark must have felt like a winless season to players accustomed to playing for championships.
Sure, the offense had its problems and the special teams might not have been sterling during a tumultuous season off and on the field.
Yet to a man, the Buckeyes defense feels as if it owes everybody else on the team, the fans and the college football world a little bit of payback for not being able to stop teams on third down and for permitting 21 points a game.
With most of the unit back — led by John Simon up front and several mainstays behind him — they’re committed to getting back to the way things used to be, when they were among the best in the land. To regain that stature, new coach Urban Meyer has put defense first.
In the book of Urban, chapter 1, verse 1, it is written: “We have a plan to win. Four things: Play great defense, win the turnover battle, score in the red zone and have a strong kicking game.”
Nowhere in Meyer’s plan does he mention the word offense, although his new mix of a spread formation at breakneck speed has garnered most of the headlines around his initial Buckeyes team. Meyer, who grew up an Ohio State fan and was weaned on Woody Hayes’ philosophy, knows that the great Buckeyes teams of the past sported rock-hard defenses.
For instance, in the elemental statistic of points allowed, the Buckeyes ranked in the top six in the country every year from 2005 through 2010 — before slipping to 27th a year ago. Opponents converted 4 of every 10 third-down plays, a huge increase from the previous two years when it was around 3 of 10.
“We put those stats up in front of our guys the other day to say, `Hey, this is what the expectation is here at Ohio State,'” said Luke Fickell, the interim head coach a year ago who has returned to his job as defensive co-coordinator. “You came here for a reason. Here’s where we’ve been the last 10 years defensively. So that’s the standard you’re held to.”
The line, as it should, anchors this year’s unit. Simon, who had 16 tackles for negative yardage last season, including seven sacks, is joined by enforcers Johnathan “Big Hank” Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Michael Bennett up front.
Hankins said the emphasis this year is more on forcing the issue and being aggressive.
“We’ll definitely be in the backfield more often,” he said with a wicked grin.
Cornerback Travis Howard shakes his head at the mayhem that takes place in front of him in practice.
“This defense is one of a kind,” the senior said. “Our defensive line is probably one of the best I’ve seen since I’ve been at Ohio State.”
Gone at linebacker is second-leading tackler Andrew Sweat, but starters Etienne Sabino and Shazier are back along with promising middle linebacker Curtis Grant.
“We haven’t played anybody yet, so it’s hard to judge,” Sabino said. “But I feel very good about this defense and have all the confidence in the world.”
Freshmen will likely play major roles throughout the front seven. Acclaimed recruits Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt on the line and David Perkins, Camren Williams and Joshua Perry at linebacker are listed on the second team.
Perkins said the coaching staff has made it clear that there is plenty of playing time available, regardless of age or experience.
“Coming in, we all knew we were going to have to play right way and compete,” he said. “That’s why we came in here.”
The entire secondary is back, led by safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant and corners Bradley Roby and Howard.
It’s a mark of the performance — or lack of it — from the front seven last year that Barnett was first and Bryant third in tackles. It’s never good when your top tacklers are the guys who start most plays 10 yards from the line of scrimmage.
“It was just being young and not having a leader to calm everything down,” Barnett said of the defense’s shortcomings. “With young and inexperienced (players), come mistakes. That was shown last year.”
Meyer sits in on the defense’s meetings, but doesn’t offer a whole lot of advice. Instead, he relies on Fickell and another defensive coordinator who became an interim head coach last year, Everett Withers, late of North Carolina, who share the Buckeyes’ coordinator job.
Meyer said all the coaches have tried to simplify things.
“We don’t ask (the players) to get into a whole lot of deep thinking,” he said. “We have sayings around here like, `Point A to Point B as fast as you can go.’ There’s a kid at linebacker named Jamal Marcus, he doesn’t know which way up is right now, but he knows how to get from Point A to Point B. And he’ll run over anything in his way to get to Point B.
“So, there’s a good chance we’ll find a way to get him on the field.”
Everyone has accepted their roles, adapted to the new staff and is helping out the flood of young guys.
“We did have leadership (in 2011), it was just a rough year for us and sometimes that happens,” Simon said. “This year we have a lot of guys really stepping up into that role. As leaders, there’s no nonsense allowed.”
That means no 16-yard gains on third and 15, no 18-play, coast-to-coast drives, no more surrendering three touchdowns a game.
The first test comes Saturday at Ohio Stadium against pass-happy Miami (Ohio).
“We’re just angry about what happened last year,” Shazier said. “It’s great playing against your teammates, but we’re tired of practicing versus each other.
“We’ll try to unleash our anger on somebody else.”