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Football: What defenders will emerge in 2017 for Ohio State

OSU then-junior cornerback Damon Webb (7) wags his finger at MSU after a big play during their game on Nov. 19, 2016 at Spartan Stadium. The Buckeyes won 17-16. Credit: Mason Swires | Assistant Photo Editor

Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.

The Ohio State football team struggled at times last season in moving the ball down the field, but was bailed out on multiple occasions by one of the stoutest defenses in the country. Allowing just 15.5 points per game, the Buckeyes and their Silver Bullets were as tough as any defensive unit in the nation.

Now, it’s a new season. Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, Malik Hooker and Raekwon McMillan have departed, leaving enormous holes for OSU on defense.

Going into the Fiesta Bowl last season, the Buckeyes’ defense was the backbone of the entire team.

And yet, it failed.

Even with the potential top-10 picks in this year’s NFL draft, Clemson’s offense paraded up and down the field, racking up 470 total yards of offense. After being embarassed 31-0, some players took the chance to leave early for a shot at competing at the next level.

Some of the biggest components of the defense now gone, and a bad taste still in the mouths of fans after the last lackluster performance, but there is still hope for the Buckeyes. A bevy of young talent is emerging during spring practice, and will soon be on display in Ohio Stadium.

Ahead of the 2017 spring game, here are three players who could make a name for themselves this season.

Dante Booker

Arriving as a four-star recruit from St. Vincent St. Mary High School in Akron, redshirt junior linebacker Dante Booker has yet to live up to his initial hype. After appearing in 11 games as a freshman and playing 197 snaps as a sophomore, Booker missed virtually the entire 2016 season after suffering an MCL sprain in the first game.

Replaced by then-sophomore Jerome Baker, who eventually emerged as a star, Booker is now slated to be the starting SAM linebacker after making it through camp unscathed. And he has high-praise from his teammates.

“I see a guy that has a burning desire to be great,” said redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley. “That’s something you look for in a team and in a coach on a team, honestly. A lot of times you see guys get hurt and they walk around with their head down and just feel like, ‘Aw, maybe next year.’ I saw last year a guy that wouldn’t take no for an answer. It just happened to be his body wasn’t ready for it.”

Booker has the body size to be an intimidating force at nearly any linebacker position, and the speed and lateral quickness to effectively play on the strongside. If he can remain healthy, expect big things from Booker, who’s been patiently waiting for his turn to prove he can be the heir to Joshua Perry’s throne.

Tracy Sprinkle

After appearing in the lineman rotation during his redshirt sophomore season, then-junior Tracy Sprinkle was poised to take over the primary defensive tackle duties for OSU. After waiting for three years for the chance to be the leading man, his body had other plans.

A right patellar tendon tear ended Sprinkle’s season. In the end, then-redshirt freshmen Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers took over and handled the duties well, but it’s now Sprinkle’s time once again.

“First thing first, thank God I am here to see another day,” Sprinkle wrote on Twitter after his injury. “Time was invested, endless hours of work was put in and sacrifices were made in order to have the best season I could have. Unfortunately God has another plan for me. It left me lost, confused, hurt and discouraged.”

Now, fresh off of rehab and a productive spring camp, Sprinkle could be a difference maker.

“Sprinkle is the one, he’s gonna be the X-factor when we can throw him in there,” Meyer said on April 4.

He might not be the starter during the season, but expect big things from the guy who’s last name is an ice cream topping. Don’t let the name fool you.

Damon Webb

Call him the forgotten member of the 2016 OSU secondary.

Senior safety Damon Webb lined up opposite of Hooker last season, and was overshadowed by the freak athleticism of his counterpart. However, Webb should be a defensive stalwart for the Buckeyes this fall.

After totaling 57 tackles and returning his only interception of the year for a touchdown, Webb will be tasked with helping lead a secondary replacing three starters. However, his veteran presence and ability to bring down the ball carrier while defending the pass should make his last season in Columbus a productive one.

Earlier this month, Webb claimed he had yet to secure a starting position. Cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs did not name anyone as a front-runner, and even mentioned the possibility of rotating as much as possible.

“When you have a talented team, the more guys you can play, keep fresh, keep healthy and get experience, the better you’re going to be defensively,” he said. “I would say there’s no reason to say those three kids can’t do the same thing in the back end.”

Still, it’s Webb’s job to lose. And while he probably won’t produce Hooker-esque numbers, expect big things from the Detroit native.

The spring game kicks off at 12:30 p.m. in Ohio Stadium.

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