There were a lot of moments in 2012 where the Ohio State defense seemingly hit rock bottom. Pick any number of games, and you could say to yourself 'well, it's not going to get any worse than this. They'll get better.'
And they would improve, for a quarter, or a half, or a game. And then Cal would happen, or a lackluster effort in the Nebraska blowout would rear its ugly head.
Then there was the near disaster at Indiana, the nadir for the defense in 2012.
They slowly improved over the last five games after the debacle in Bloomington, but the normally dominant defense was just okay last year, something that will unquestionably need to change in 2013.
There's only one problem: the two most dominant players, John Simon and Jonathan Hankins, have left for NFL fame and fortune. Replacing their leadership and ability while simultaneously regaining the form that made the defense the mainstay of Ohio State for so long isn't an impossible task – but it's not easy, either.
Probably the best news Ohio State received at the end of the 2012 season was that CB Bradley Roby would be returning for his redshirt junior season. There were two players that had a decent chance of leaving early, Roby and Hankins. Of the two, it was far more important for Roby to return than Big Hank, simple because the depth on the defensive line could absorb his loss more than the secondary could absorb Roby's loss. And with the graduation ofTravis Howard, Roby will be the leader of the secondary, that includes returning safeties C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant.
Speaking of the defensive line, even though all the starters from last year are gone, it's the one area Urban Meyer has arguably over-recruited since he came to Columbus. Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt, Joey Bosa, and
Se'Veon Pittman will form the nucleus of what should become one of the youngest, fastest, and most talented defensive lines in college football. It's not that talent that is a concern, however. It's the ledership, or lack of it, that has even the head coach worried.
John Simon's departure leaves a huge leadership void that even Coach Meyer has said worries him. Meyer's praise of Simon has been so effusive that it's reached the Tim Tebow level – which would nauseate many if they weren't Ohio State fans. Still, it drives home how instrumental Simon was as a leader, and as a guy who set a positive example for the younger players to emulate.
That responsibility will fall not only on Roby, but Ryan Shazier. Shazier's talent is undeniable, and by the end of the 2012 season he was playing as well as anyone in the country at linebacker. Shazier's play as a freshman stood out late in the 2011 crapapalooza season, and carried over into 2012. He started out slow, but finished strong and will look to continue that momentum into the 2013 season. And as Shazier is the only starter returning among the front seven, the other players will look to him to set an example, both on and off the field.
Ohio State's talent level at the two deep on defense is, on paper, probably the best it's been in a long, long time. They have the potential to be freakishly good, with speed on the defensive line and at the linebacker positions we haven't seen in Columbus or anywhere else in the conference. But with seven new starters, they'll have to learn fast, and look to guys like Ryan Shazier and Bradley Roby to lead the way.
If they do that, and if Roby and Shazier step up to the plate, there is no stopping this defense.