Buckeyes' defense looking for a few good leaders
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- The most memorable play of Ohio State's spring practice sessions was a vicious, grimace-inducing hit against a surprised ball-carrier.
The bad part was that it came against the team mascot.
Brutus Buckeye, that huge-headed nut, ran with the ball during a semi-playful portion of a workout earlier this month and sophomore linebacker David Perkins, who said his instincts just kicked in, absolutely leveled him.
Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell can now laugh about the destruction, which played out in front of hundreds of students who had been invited to a practice.
"I'm glad you're asking me that two weeks after the fact because I wouldn't have spoken about it then," Fickell said solemnly.
Now he's able to see the humorous side of it, well after the video went viral.
"It was a very good form tackle," Fickell said. "I think we're going to use it on our tackling tape."
The bottom line is that Brutus -- or at least one of the students in the massive foam head, rugby shirt, warmup pants and sneakers -- survived. Perkins shocked his coaches by nearly snuffing out the life of the school's beloved mascot, but he got through the spring as one of a number of promising young players on a unit that is striving to replace seven departing starters -- including the core leaders on a surprising 12-0 team.
Linemen John Simon, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel and Johnathan Hankins, linebackers Zach Boren and Etienne Sabino and cornerback Travis Howard did much of the work to transform a 6-7 team into only the sixth unbeaten and untied squad in Ohio State's 123 years playing the sport.
The Buckeyes have a lot of talent returning despite losing those seven starters. But it's filling in the gap of experience and expertise that may be the hardest task before the games start counting this fall.
"You take John Simon, Sabino, the vocal leadership out of our defense," coach Urban Meyer said after Saturday's spring game in Cincinnati. "Who fills that void?"
So a lot of importance was placed on not only finding replacements for those missing players but also finding some solid citizens on defense to help the younger players and guide the Buckeyes through a long and difficult season.
"You're always concerned about the leadership and the mentality, the way those guys are handling everything," Fickell said. "Is (it a worry) they're going to work hard? No. (Is it a worry) that they are going to be in shape? You don't worry about those things. You worry about how they jell together, how the leadership guys step up, how they make the other guys around them better."
The front seven on defense -- where six of the leaders came from -- has been a focus this spring. The key figures up front appear to be Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale. Joining holdover linebacker Ryan Shazier (who did not practice this spring due to an injury) are Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, backed by Camren Williams and Perkins, the mascot-thumper.
"When you lose guys like (we did), you immediately think you're going to be young and the learning curve is going to be steeper," said Everett Withers, safeties coach and the other co-coordinator. "The kids felt some confidence within the spring of what we needed to have done. We're a little bit ahead of the curve. We still have a ton of work to do to get better on the finer points of the game but I do feel we're headed in the right direction."
Mike Vrabel, who coaches the line, believes his group improved.
"After 15 practices, I would grade us a B to a B-plus," he said. "We did some good things. There's some things we have to improve on, such as consistently playing hard, consistently playing with a demeanor that's going to allow us to be a top-five D-line in the country."
Three starters are back in the secondary, led by lockdown corner Bradley Roby.
But they still are being counted on to take steps on their own before practice resumes.
"If all we do is come into August the same as we are in April, what a waste of four months," cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs said.
So the Ohio State defense will have new guys bringing new abilities. The question is, will it be better?
"It's an exciting time when you have a young group," Fickell said. "We saw guys who are starting to grasp a little bit of the different leadership styles. It's been really good for the young guys."
Even if, in one case, it wasn't so good for Brutus.