It’s been more than a month since the Ohio State football team won its eighth national championship, but it is never too early to look forward to the start of the 2015 season.
The Buckeyes are set to return seven of 11 starters on defense, a crew that held all three Heisman finalists relatively in check over the last three games of the year.
With the 2015 spring game just about two months away from kicking off, we look at what the “Silver Bullets” will be bringing to the table as they get set to defend their title.
While the Buckeyes lose Steve Miller and Michael Bennett, OSU doesn’t seem to be taking too big of a step back in 2015 along the defensive front.
Unanimous All-American junior Joey Bosa is set to return for what will likely be his final season in the scarlet and gray, and veteran senior Adolphus Washington will likely anchor the interior of the front four for OSU.
The candidate most likely to replace Bennett, who is almost sure to be a first- or second-round NFL Draft selection, is senior Tommy Schutt.
Schutt played in 12 games in 2014 and recorded 10 tackles.
Redshirt-sophomore Michael Hill will also earn time as the Buckeyes rotate early and often on the defensive line, especially inside.
Replacing the production lost by Miller and Rashad Frazier should not be an issue for the Buckeyes as highly touted youngsters step to the forefront.
Sophomore Jalyn Holmes, who made an appearance in nine games including the title game against Oregon, is a leading candidate for the end spot while fellow redshirt-sophomore Tyquan Lewis will also see significant playing time.
Left out of the mix will be 2015 recruit Jashon Cornell. Despite being a four-star recruit, he is buried behind a stable of talent that will be competing for playing time on a defense looking to repeat for a national title.
Returning starters: Joey Bosa, Adolphus Washington
Key losses: Michael Bennett, Steve Miller
Odd man out: Jashon Cornell
Projected starters: Bosa, Washington, Tommy Schutt, Jalyn Holmes
The linebackers on the 2014 title winning defense more than exceeded expectations after a less-than-stellar 2013 season.
Led by senior Joshua Perry, the Buckeyes are set to return two of three starters from the linebacker core and a third with plenty of experience.
Redshirt-sophomore Darron Lee and sophomore Raekwon McMillan will likely round out a three-man group that is built to torture opponents’ backfields.
McMillan — who will replace Curtis Grant — totaled 54 tackles in his freshman campaign, just 15 less than Grant, who started each game in 2014.
Combined, the three returning players accounted for 259 tackles in 2014, and are poised to shatter that number in 2015.
Should an unforeseen injury occur, incoming freshman Justin Hilliard, the top outside linebacker recruit in the country according to ESPN, could see some early reps.
Hilliard is an Ohio native out of St. Xavier High School and a possible future star for the Buckeyes.
Returning starters: Joshua Perry, Darron Lee
Key loss: Curtis Grant
Odd man out: Chris Worley
Projected starters: Perry, Lee, Raekwon McMillan
If you are looking for a position group to credit for winning the 2014 title (other than the quarterbacks), look no further than the OSU secondary.
The Buckeyes improved to the 29th best pass defense in 2014 from the 112th ranked pass defense in 2013, and stifled offenses for the large part of the title run.
From the back four, the Buckeyes are set to return three players in 2015, but the one player lost might be the most difficult to replace.
Doran Grant played arguably the biggest role on the OSU defense other than Bosa in 2014, as he took on wide receivers like Tony Lippett from Michigan State and Heisman finalist Amari Cooper from Alabama and held each under 100 yards.
With Doran Grant lost to graduation, it is likely redshirt-sophomore Eli Apple will slide over to the strongside corner spot while redshirt-junior Tyvis Powell and junior Vonn Bell will return to their respective safety spots.
Leading candidates to take over the weakside corner position are likely redshirt-sophomore Gareon Conley and sophomore Damon Webb.
Conley, who started in place of Apple during the Michigan State game, showed signs of weakness as he gave up two big plays to quarterback Connor Cook and company, forcing Apple to play injured.
Webb, whom some expected to redshirt in 2014, did not do so and appeared in nine games as a freshman, collecting three tackles.
Another candidate is sophomore Erick Smith, who appeared in 13 games as a freshman and totaled 13 tackles to go along with an interception against Kent State.
Whoever replaces Doran Grant will have big shoes to fill, and will likely be tested early and often.
Returning starters: Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Tyvis Powell
Key losses: Doran Grant, Armani Reeves (injury)
Odd man out: Gareon Conley
Projected starters: Apple, Damon Webb, Bell, Powell
The Buckeye defense is set to test its changes against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 in Blacksburg, Va.