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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Talent isn't the issue for Luke Fickell -- far from it.
The Ohio State co-defensive coordinator may be faced with the enviable task of replacing seven starters from last season's unit, which included the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in John Simon and fellow all-conference selections Johnathan Hankins and Travis Howard, but Fickell isn't concerned about a lack of skill existing on the Buckeyes defense 2013. The leadership Ohio State lost, however, is an ongoing issue.
Head coach Urban Meyer has already identified players -- Christian Bryant, C.J. Barnett, Ryan Shazier, Bradley Roby, and Michael Bennett -- whom he expects to step up and fill the voids left by the likes of Simon, Zach Boren, and Etienne Sabino, but as Fickell explained, it's not quite that simple. Not only do those players have to identify themselves as leaders, but the players expected to follow them have to do just that.
"We've got guys who are leaders. We've got guys who are natural leaders, whether they're freshmen or they're seniors," Fickell said. "Leadership is developed all the time, but it's really how the people around them accept and handle and take it. I think that's what we're trying to develop."
After 15 spring practices, it's been so far, so good for the Buckeyes defense according to Fickell. Replacing seven starters is no easy task for any coordinator, but Fickell's been impressed by the players that he's plugged into the vacant starting spots, particularly up front, where sophomores Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence have helped anchor a revamped OSU defensive line.
"The reality is that when you have some young guys, there are some different things that you do," Fickell said. "We saw that with the defensive line. It's a tough program that pushes you hard, and I think we saw guys that are really starting to grasp that -- a little bit of the different leadership styles and things and I think it's been really good for the young guys."
Behind the defensive line, which will replace all four of its starters for the first time in 28 years, just as much uncertainty exists in the Buckeyes' linebacking corps. Although Ryan Shazier emerged as an All-Big Ten selection last season, middle linebacker Curtis Grant has been inconsistent through the first two years of his college career, and Joshua Perry didn't see much significant playing time as a freshman in 2012.
As of right now, those are the three linebackers who would line up for Ohio State in its base defense formation, but Fickell's been pleased with the depth that the Buckeyes built at the position throughout spring practice.
"The things that I think we did is we created some competition in the linebacker room. We found some guys that can go out there and perform," Fickell, who also serves as OSU's linebackers coach, said. "We've got a long way to go, but we created some competition. Not just with David Perkins and Camren Williams, but with Craig Fada and Joe Burger.
"Are all those guys going to be great? Who knows. But the ability to create that competition on a daily basis, to be able to move guys around, really keeps those guys interest sparked and allows them to grow."
The Buckeyes' secondary might be the area on the defense that posses the least amount of questions heading into 2013, with three starters returning in Bryant, Barnett, and Roby, and junior cornerback Doran Grant having seen significant snaps last season. Aside from picking up where they left off last year, when the OSU defense ranked second sixth nationally in the month of November (140.3 passing yards per game), the Buckeyes' backend will be expected to provide the majority of that leadership that Fickell craves, which could go a long way towards determining Ohio State's success in 2013.
"You're always concerned about the leadership and the mentality (of the team)," Fickell said. "There's always leaders. The key is the young guys and everybody around them believe that they're leaders. Because if they do, then they'll follow. As long as they're leading in the right direction, then I think we're in good shape."
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