Last season, the Ohio State football defense left a lot to be desired, and it might have to turn that around in a big way to support an offense that will be playing without senior quarterback Braxton Miller.
The Buckeye defense gave up a total of 5,284 yards in 2013, including 3,752 yards through the air. If the team wants to have more success in 2014, some players will have to step up with only seven starters returning from last season.
The following five players — not all of whom were starters last season — will have to take their games to the next level to help keep the Buckeyes’ championship hopes alive.
1. Senior cornerback Doran Grant
Let’s be frank: OSU’s pass defense was awful last season.
Former Buckeye Bradley Roby had all the talent in the world, but he never seemed to be able to put it all together after an early-season suspension. Enter Grant, who showed some flashes of athleticism and talent, but still spent a fair amount of time getting beaten in the flats — along with the entire defense.
Grant has big-play ability and has received a lot of praise from coach Urban Meyer this offseason, but will need to build on his 58 tackles and three interceptions from 2013 if the Buckeyes want to see a big jump forward in pass defense. Meyer went so far as to say Grant was playing to the caliber of an All-Big Ten cornerback in fall camp.
He’s the only returning starter in the defensive backfield, and is by far the most senior player of them all. As a leader and as a player, if Grant turns a corner this season, it will be a completely new OSU defense.
2. Sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa
Bosa played in all 14 games last season as a true freshman and did more than flash his potential as a dominating lineman.
He arrived on campus already looking like an NFL-ready player and his production — especially later in the season — proved he has the potential to be one of the best ever at OSU.
After tallying 7.5 sacks last season — second only to junior defensive lineman Noah Spence — Bosa has a chance to make a statement on a Big Ten and national level this year.
The defensive line is the Buckeyes’ best position group, and Bosa just might be the best of the bunch.
3. (tie) Sophomore safety Vonn Bell and redshirt-sophomore safety Tyvis Powell
The OSU safeties had a pretty rough go throughout 2013.
Then-senior Christian Bryant broke his ankle against Wisconsin to end his Buckeye career, and the safeties were left without someone who was arguably their best player. C.J. Barnett was the other starter and he finished second on the team with 84 tackles, but Barnett has since graduated as well.
In 2014, Bell and Powell look set to take their spots, hoping to do better than former OSU safety Corey “Pitt” Brown did filling in for Bryant last season.
Both are extremely talented players, as Bell is one of the highest-rated recruits Meyer has brought to OSU and Powell played extensively last season. They even each had trademark moments last year: Bell had an incredible one-handed interception in the Orange Bowl while Powell sealed a win against Michigan with an interception on the Wolverines last ditch two-point attempt.
Along with Grant, Bell and Powell have a chance to live up to expectations this season and transform the OSU pass defense into one of the best in the Big Ten.
4. Senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett
Bennett brings a lot to the table on and off the field. Meyer announced Monday that Bennett, along with Grant and three others, was voted a team captain by his teammates.
As a leader, he’ll be the go-to guy on the defensive line, but as a player, he’ll still need to be dominant for the unit to live up to their best-in-the-nation potential.
Last season the Centerville, Ohio, native totaled 11.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks while fighting through minor injuries throughout the season. If he’s fully healthy in 2014, Bennett could put together an even better season and be looking toward the first round of the NFL Draft next spring.
5. Freshman linebacker Raekwon McMillan
Junior Joshua Perry and senior Curtis Grant are the familiar returning names on the OSU linebacker’s depth chart, but McMillan could eventually leave Columbus as the best of the bunch.
He was a five-star recruit coming out of high school as one of the best prep linebackers in the nation. That comes with a lot of lofty expectations as a freshman, especially at a school known for producing standout linebackers like A.J. Hawk and Chris Spielman.
There’s almost nothing to go off of outside of high school footage and his performance in the Spring Game, but McMillan is going to see the field early and often if OSU coaches are to be believed.
Regardless of whether he starts a single game this season, McMillan will be tasked with doing more than your average freshman, and all signs point toward him being up for the challenge.
OSU’s season-opener is scheduled for Saturday against Navy at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. Kickoff is set for noon.