Only one starter returns to the front seven for Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell.
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COLUMBUS — Luke Fickell eats and breathes Ohio State football, which often prevents him from sleeping Ohio State football.
What’s kept him up lately is the too-soon-for-comfort impending unveiling of the Buckeyes’ rebuilt defense — a unit breaking in six new starters on the front seven.
Are they ready?
“You’re torn lying in bed,” Fickell said Monday. “Are you really anxious? Or are you really a little bit nervous?”
For the Buckeyes’ defensive coordinator, his excitement mixes with apprehension as No. 2 OSU prepares for its Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo.
The buzz part is easy to understand.
OSU should begin to enjoy the rewards of coach Urban Meyer’s full-scale early efforts to stockpile blue-chip defensive lineman — the position the second-year boss believes most separates the powerhouse Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten.
Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, former five-star prospects, are billed as standout bookends of an all-new line while 6-foot-2, 303-pound sophomore Tommy Schutt should challenge on the interior.
Coaches believe the defensive front is so deep that in the last week they moved a pair of once-heralded line prospects to offense. Freshman Billy Price shifted to the offensive line while junior J.T. Moore switched to tight end.
At linebacker, meanwhile, preseason conference defensive player of the year Ryan Shazier returns as a needed stabilizing presence — and the fastest member of what Fickell said will be a faster defense this season.
“We really like what we’ve seen so far,” Fickell said of the front seven, “and the upside is incredible.”
Yet for now, upside represents potential still to be reached.
“I’m concerned all the time,” Fickell said. “There’s a lot of guys that we’re concerned about, and a lot of guys we have high expectations for. But until they go out there and perform in front of the crowd when the lights are on ... that’s what you’re always waiting to see. There’s one of them that’s really done it [Shazier] and there’s a lot of them that haven’t. I’m anxious to see.”
So are fans. Up front, the hype surrounding Spence and Washington ramped up when the pair combined for seven sacks in the spring game — and it may be justified.
Spence is up from 227 pounds last year to 253 this season and has often dominated during spring practice. The 6-foot-3, 292-pound Washington looks to pick up where he left off, both against Michigan (a sack and a forced fumble) and in the Scarlet and Gray scrimmage (four sacks).
The pair are joined by junior starting tackles Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, though coaches say Schutt is pushing hard. Although the Buckeyes’ line must replace NFL draft picks John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, Spence said this year’s edition could be a surprise strength.
“It’s a lot more go get ’em, a lot more speed and everything like that, so that’s a big difference,” Spence said. “God willing, we’ll be just as good, if not better than last year.”
Behind them is more speed, though the linebackers around Shazier remain unproven. Junior Curtis Grant and sophomore Josh Perry have 15 combined career tackles, and coaches are concerned with the depth.
Fickell said touted freshmen linebackers Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson started camp strong but have since “hit a wall.” Grant’s recent absence with a concussion has pushed walk-on sophomore Joe Burger into the starting middle linebacker role.
It is just the sort of dilemma that keeps Fickell up at night, though he is ultimately optimistic his new-look defense can resemble the Buckeyes defenses of old.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in those guys,” he said, “and I’m excited to see them play.”
THE REPLACEMENT: Sophomore cornerback Armani Reeves will start in place of suspended All-American cornerback Bradley Roby for the Buckeyes’ opener.
Reeves, a West Roxbury, Mass., native who played mostly on special teams last year, is the godson of former University of Toledo and NFL defensive lineman Brent Williams.
“This is my first start, so who wouldn’t be nervous, really?” Reeves said. “But first play, the first hit, I’ll be cool. It’s a great experience and I can’t wait for it. I prepared the whole offseason for this, all for this moment.”
Roby was suspended one game for his role in a bar skirmish last month in Bloomington, Ind., but is expected to return for the Buckeyes’ second game against San Diego State.
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