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With eight starters departing, what will Ohio State’s defense look like in 2016?

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OSU redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) defends during a game against Western Michigan on Sept. 26 at Ohio Stadium. OSU 38-12. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

OSU redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) defends during a game against Western Michigan on Sept. 26 at Ohio Stadium. OSU 38-12. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead / Photo Editor

Yesterday, The Lantern began its two-part examination of what Ohio State’s starting lineups might look like during the 2016 season after an unprecedented amount of talent depart due to graduation or the NFL draft, which included 16 of 22 starters — eight on offense and eight on defense.

The three offensive starters returning — redshirt junior quarterback J.T. Barrett, redshirt senior guard-turned-center Pat Elflein and redshirt junior guard Billy Price — will have to quickly integrate with the large number of offensive weapons asked to step up in a big way to keep the powerhouse program afloat.

The same will have to be done on defense, which was often considered the bread and butter of coach Urban Meyer’s 2015 squad. The three returning starters there — junior linebacker Raekwon McMillan, redshirt junior cornerback Gareon Conley and redshirt junior defensive end Tyquan Lewis — started all 13 games in 2015. However, beyond that trio the projected starters next season ranged from players splitting snaps to seeing limited playing time to being in high school in 2015.

Here is an early glance at OSU’s defense as it turns the page on the next era of talent.

On the line

The players occupying the two ends of the front four seems obvious enough, with Lewis returning to one end and redshirt sophomore Sam Hubbard, who was a key contributor off the bench in 2015 with 6.5 sacks, on the other.

Hubbard will be asked to fill the shoes of Joey Bosa, though Hubbard actually registered 1.5 more sacks than the consensus top-10 pick.

Almost as important as filling Bosa’s spot with Hubbard, however, is filling Hubbard’s role of picking up snaps on both end positions on the line when a starter gets a breather. The likeliest candidate for that job seems to be junior Jalyn Holmes, who received an extended look in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame after Bosa’s early ejection.

Things get murkier up the middle, however. Both starters there, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt, were lost to graduation, with not a ton of strong options waiting in the wings.

Redshirt junior Michael Hill started a few games in 2015 that Schutt missed with various injuries, so it is reasonable to think he will step into a full-time role next year.

But Meyer might have to get creative for the other spot in the interior. It is possible that lower-ceiling players like redshirt sophomore Donovan Munger or redshirt junior Tracy Sprinkle could get the early nods as a placeholder, but don’t be surprised to see Meyer turn to a true freshman to occupy the role.

Malik Barrow, a four-star recruit from Tampa, Florida, could be ready to step up from Day 1 if he performs well in spring and fall practice. Fellow Floridian Nick Bosa, the younger brother of Joey, is also a possibility. Recruited as a defensive end, some have thought the five-star recruit could project as a defensive tackle. The hitch with him is that he is recovering from a torn ACL suffered during his final year of high school, so health could hold him back from playing right away.

In the middle

As one of the few returning starters, combined with his natural leadership role of the Mike linebacker, McMillan will be the unquestioned captain of the defense. There is a very strong possibility that his junior season will be his final one in college, so another strong season from the Hinesville, Georgia, product, who led the team with 119 tackles in 2015, should be expected.

The other two starting linebacker spots, however, are not so easy to figure out.

Expect one of them to go to redshirt junior Chris Worley, who would have likely been a starter each of the last two years had he not been beaten out before the 2014 season by the now-departed Darron Lee.

The third seems to be an absolute toss-up. Junior Dante Booker and sophomore Jerome Baker could certainly be considered the favorites when camp opens, but a name to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Nick Conner.

Conner broke out with a very strong performance during the 2015 spring game, leading many to believe he could play a significant role as a true freshman. While a knee injury ended his hopes of contributing in 2015, Meyer has made it clear how much he likes the product of nearby Dublin Scioto High School.

While Conner’s future will likely lie with inheriting McMillan’s Mike linebacker job, he could get an early head start should he be granted the outside or strong-side linebacker position in 2016.

In the back

As with the first two defensive groups, the secondary features one returning starter in Conley. This unit arguably features more talent loss than any other, with safeties Vonn Bell and Tyvis Powell and top cornerback Eli Apple saying goodbye with eligibility remaining.

Opposite Conley at the cornerback position should be junior Damon Webb, who saw snaps in seven games as OSU’s nickelback in passing situations.

Occupying Webb’s former role as the third corner, therefore, is up for grabs. Redshirt sophomore Marshon Lattimore is probably the leading candidate for the job, but sophomore Denzel Ward, who took the familiar Meyer route of getting his feet wet on special teams, could be keyed in on for a bigger role.

The safety spots should be occupied by redshirt sophomore Malik Hooker and redshirt junior Cam Burrows, simply by process of elimination of the thinnest position on the team.

Unless Webb or Ward shift from cornerback to safety, those two are really the only candidates on the roster with any experience. Hooker appeared in each game in some capacity in 2015, while Burrows was ahead of him on the depth chart before suffering a season-ending foot injury midway through the year.

That projection, however, hinges on the health of junior Erick Smith, who should have a starting spot with his name on it should he recover fully from a torn ACL suffered in early November. But ACL injuries are no joke when it comes to both getting healthy and regaining effectiveness, so it’s a big question mark if Smith will be able to step into a large role when the season begins on Sept. 3 against Bowling Green.

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