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MnB B1G Preview: Talking defense, recruiting, and the future with Luke and Ramzy (Part Two)

All eyes on Urb. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
All eyes on Urb. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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Today we turn out attention to the defense, recruiting, and the future of Ohio State football when it comes to the Michigan rivalry and the national scene.

Once again I'd like to thank Luke Zimmermann and Ramzy Nasrallah for taking the time to tell us more about Urban Meyer's first team and the direction of the Ohio State program.

Ohio State's offense struggled for long stretches of last season, but the defense was still pretty good (with a couple bad games). What should we expect to see from Ohio State's defense in 2012? Will the scheme stay largely the same? Will the secondary take a step forward after a disappointing year? Will the defensive line be the best in the conference like I tend to think it will (somewhere a Michigan State fan just spit his coffee on his laptop reading this)?

Luke - Ohio State's defense should continue the trend of being one of the best (if not the best) in the Big Ten and also likely in the mix for the top dozen to two dozen in the country. The addition of former North Carolina defensive coordinator (and last year interim head coach) Everett Withers is a big one though besides how they utilize their safeties, there shouldn't be a remarkably huge sea change. Funny you mention the secondary as I think it's still single handedly Ohio State's greatest weakness on either side of the ball. Bradley Roby is a heck of a player and with another year under his belt will likely be a great pro. Other than that, it's fairly slim pickings. Travis Howard is Chimdi Chekwa revisited; a guy who's a nickel back in most Ohio State defenses promoted into the top two almost by necessity. Of course, Chekwa had a great final third of his senior year and now finds himself an Oakland Raider so he's not without hope. The presumptive safeties, C.J. Barnett and Christian Bryant, are talented though wildly inconsistent. The key for the secondary very well may be the pressure the d-line can put on opposing signal callers. William Gholston is great, but Johnathan Hankins is a Top-5 NFL Draft pick waiting to happen and John Simon is a smaller Chris Long and also probably first rounder. Nathan Williams, when healthy, wasn't that far behind Gholston in terms of performance (though obviously not as physically gifted). Plus unlike Sparty, the Buckeyes go 3 deep with 4 and 5 star younglings. The most SEC thing going on for the Buckeyes at this point is a lethal equal parts strength and style defensive line that could have some opposing quarterbacks praying to meet their makers, particularly come the grind of Big Ten play.

Ramzy - I don't see Fickell deviating much from what the defensive strategy has looked like over the past decade. The DL and the DBs are terrific. The LBs are a mixed bag. As long as nobody gets hurt, it should be quite solid. /tears ACL typing prediction

I would be remiss to ignore the recruiting success of Urban Meyer thus far. In what way has his recruiting strategy differed from that of Jim Tressel? Is Brady Hoke's success mining top level talent from Ohio indicative of the Michigan staff's recruiting prowess, or is it a sign of Meyer ceding ground on the home turf in favor of an increasingly national focus? If this dynamic continues are you worried that it could have long term negative effects, or will Meyer be able to keep a talent gap in place between the two teams?

Luke - In every way. Tressel focussed way more on finding "his guys", which sometimes could include some understated/under-the-radar type recruits. While he certainly had his national niches (Florida amongst them), Tressel still built his plan inside-out. Meyer is committing to winning Ohio but definitely seems to prioritizing more out of an outward-in strategy than The Vest ever did. Michigan's entire success historically and up into the present is contingent on being in the mix for elite Ohio talent. Much of his early success is a biproduct of Ohio State's disarray in the past calendar year plus Hoke simply being more committed to it than Rich Rod seemingly ever was. Michigan's high level of success (as perceived by seventeen and eighteen year olds) also has a stake in it. Should the Wolverines revert to 8-4/9-3 type success in 2012 and/or Ohio State has an outstanding year even sans post-season prospects, and a lot of that gain could be neutralized. Of course should Michigan repeat their success of a year ago (or better it), both of which I'd estimate as being more probable, while Ohio State has (by their lofty standards) a second rebuilding year in as many seasons, you might see Hoke even further move the needle. Of course, should Ohio State win a national title next season or the year after, unless Michigan takes one home in the interim, that could dramatically alter the landscape, to say the least.

So am I worried? I enjoy Michigan being relevant because it's great for college football, the league, and The Rivalry. If Michigan's status quo is just Michigan of the pre-Rich Rod 2000's, there'll still be contrarian/troll types who rebel from their home states to go play for the other side. If both Ohio State and Michigan are amongst the best in college football, there'll definitely be some interesting recruiting battles for years to come. But should Ohio State flounder out of the gates or Urban never really get past a Bruce/Cooper like level of success with Michigan getting a few conference titles and/or a national one during that stretch? At that point I'm apoplectic.

Ramzy -The entire staff recruits - and very aggressively at that - under Urban. Tressel kept non-recruiters like Bollman and Siciliano on staff as well as some older, tired coaches like Jim Heacock (whom I really liked otherwise) and his brother Dick.

I think Hoke's success in Ohio is two-fold: One, he recruited his current commitments when they were sophomore and juniors while Urban was at ESPN and Tressel's staff was treading water during most of 2011 and disappeared from the recruiting landscape entirely, let alone Ohio. Two, Hoke is good at what he does. Urban isn't necessarily ceding Ohio in favor of a national approach - if a kid in Ohio is as good as one in Missouri they will still go for the Ohio kid first. But now they actually know about the kid in Missouri. That's what's new.

The 2012 recruiting class was a late masterpiece put together by Meyer and his staff in a matter of just two months. The defensive line haul is probably one of the best collections of talent in the entire 2012 recruiting cycle, and for the talk of Meyer needing play makers on offense, the 2012 class is incredibly heavy on high level defensive talent. What players in the 2012 class are going to see the field early? Why the heavy focus on defensive players in Urban's first year?

Luke - The previously touched on Decker and Boren aside, we'll also see plenty of freshman wide receiver Michael Thomas. Thomas was the best (and certainly most consistent) wide receiver for the entirety of the spring and will remind Michigan fans of Terry Glenn in more ways than wearing the same jersey number come this fall. Linebacker Josh Perry is already in the mix at Sam linebacker being listed as the co-backup on Meyer's first formal post-spring depth chart and should have plenty of opportunities to make an impact. Freak defensive end Noah Spence is almost too good to keep off the field (even given Ohio State's perverse defensive line depth) and fellow freshmen Adolphus Washington and Se'von Pittman also might merit early action. Finally, it's definitely within the realm of possibilities that linebacker Camren Williams from Massachusetts sees time early on. No one denies this.

Ramzy - Dunn, Decker and Thomas will play, as should most of the DL haul - Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Se'Von Pittman. Jamel Marcus and David Perkins both have a shot too, especially with LB depth being what it is.

The defensive focus was likely a result of his early reliance on Fickell regarding the state of the roster, combined with the raw/neglected offensive talent already on the roster. That's my theory.

Michigan won The Game for the first time in forever. Coaches at the two schools are ultimately measured on what they do against the other team. Jim Tressel was a runaway success and a state hero because of his dominance over Michigan, John Cooper was let go in part because he couldn't get past Michigan despite putting together great teams. On the other side, Lloyd Carr's support among the fan base changed quickly once the tide turned in the rivalry, and Rich Rodriguez -- a failure for so, so, so many reasons -- is always going to have "0-3" prominently discussed when his regrettable tenure is brought up. This is to say nothing of Woody and Bo, who will forever be linked by The Game. What do you expect from Urban Meyer when it comes to beating Michigan? Brady Hoke has injected new life into the Michigan program and looks to be a formidable challenge, yet I still see Ohio State fans comfortably asserting seven or eight wins out of ten as a baseline for success? Are we in for another Ten-Year War, or will it be back to business as usual once Urban settles in?

Luke - Honestly, I think Meyer will have his work cut out for him. Michigan's on an upswing while Ohio State, other than a recruiting boon, still has a ways to go to come back from the worst season in some 20 years for the Buckeyes. Meyer is saying the right things and seems to be prioritizing The Rivalry accordingly, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will result in on the field results, particularly not immediately. It's incredibly premature in my mind to just assume Meyer will have lofty, immediate success just because he was successful returning Florida to Steve Spurrier on the field results and then briefly even surpassing that. He's a very accomplished coach and he's done great things everywhere he's been but seeing is still believing. Who's to say circumstantially he doesn't burn out bright and fast if Ohio State doesn't meet its fans and leadership's near impossible standards? Getting Urban was already a coup. It's now up to him to live up to the savior faith already being bestowed upon, fair or not.

Ramzy - You go by what you're accustomed to: After the Cooper era Michigan fans practically forgot what it was like to lose to Ohio State. I forgot what it was like to not-lose to Michigan. Tressel flipped that quite dramatically, and the reason Buckeye fans may feel confident is that the trendline is still heavily in favor of Ohio State, with 2011 being written off as an anomaly for so many reasons.

I don't know about having a new Ten-Year War. It sounds nice, but the Big Ten from 1968-1978 was, at kindest, MAC-level with two obvious exceptions. The rivalry hasn't fallen off; it just got too predictable. Hoke is neither apathetically going through the motions in the twilight of his career nor is he painfully unaware of the asset he has in Michigan football, which were the devastating flaws of his two predecessors. Urban knows what he's doing too. The last time The Game featured two programs at full strength was 2006. That's what people like to see.

But another Ten-Year War, by definition, would have to mean the Big Ten is absolutely terrible. From 1968-1980 Ohio State was 6-6-1 against Michigan and 166-10 against the rest of the Big Ten. Hooray?

Urban Meyer is taking over an Ohio State program that just limped out of its worst season in a decade, and is facing NCAA sanctions that include a one year bowl ban and scholarship reductions. Despite all of this, the fan base seems supremely confident in Meyer's ability to do what Tressel failed to do after 2002: win a national championship. My question isn't whether you think OSU will win a national championship in the next five years -- while the team will most certainly be good enough to compete for one at some point, a lot of things have to go right to get over the hump and actually win the damn thing -- but rather, how will fans react in five years if Urban Meyer fails to deliver a crystal football to Columbus? Is his legacy too tied up in the expectation of a national title?

Luke - I hate to sound cynical, but I don't see Ohio State winning a national title with Meyer as their head coach. They might be in competition for them and could even play for one, but other than some conference championship game type success, maybe even winning a high level BCS bowl, breaking through and winning a national title is a whole other matter. If Meyer does, he's instantly elevated to Nick Saban levels as not just one of the best coaches of the modern era, but one of the best of all-time. If he has high level success, beats Michigan, and wins a BCS bowl or two, he can retire (again) and be held in a high regard as long as he does things relatively the right way. If the program under his guidance has extended legal/off the field issues, violates any of the school's probation, or loses with consistency to Michigan while not having high national level success, his ceiling is Cooper-ish or something new and awful that doesn't fit our collective recycled narratives.

Ramzy - Cooper had a saying: Ohio State fans are with you, win or tie. He was right. I think the least rational faction of the Buckeye fan base would be satisfied with a BCS title every roster generation (four years). Most of us are content with conference titles, beating Michigan and not suffering through an entire goddamn calendar year of media assasination because of a head coach who didn't have a GMail account or a burner phone.

Ohio State will win the conference in the next five years, which should mean it's in contention for a BCS title too. There will always be a segment of fans dissatisfied with how the team does; they were incapable of separating their frustration with Tressel's approach to football from his results and they measure their own self-worth by how the Buckeyes perform. So they'll call into radio shows to gripe about what they think Urban should do while they fill their coolers with excrement. That's what they always do, win or tie.

Bonus Question: How the hell does Gene Smith still have a job?

Luke - Never before has one man gone from the cusp of the NCAA presidency and being heralded by his peers, employers, and "fans" alike as one of the nation's best at his vocation to radio talk show callers pleading for his job and most conceding he's long been over his head. I was never overwhelmed with his money sport work at Arizona State but bought in to the talking points and the buzz that Smith was a guy going places and that this Notre Dame pedigree somehow made him an ideal fit for the Buckeyes. I think if anything this says more about the hand he inherited from his criminally underrated predecessor Andy Geiger (now Wisconsin-Milwaukee athletic director). Thad Matta was a program changing hire and Jim Tressel was even better; Smith better count his lucky stars that Les Wexner's parting gift to the Buckeyes was securing Meyer's services. If the Buckeyes fail with Meyer, it's not on Smith; there was no better candidate out there. If they succeed, his "legacy" is repaired, albeit in a limited context.

Ramzy - He knows where all of the bodies are buried. That's job security.