Big Ten Q&A: Jim Heacock, Part I

Ohio State opened spring drills Thursday, and for the Buckeyes' defense, it's business as usual. Though the defense loses six starters, it remains one of the nation's elite units, thanks in large part to coordinator Jim Heacock. Ohio State has ranked among the nation's top-15 defenses in each of Heacock's five seasons as coordinator. The defense has recorded three top-5 finishes during the span, including a fifth-place finish in 2009. Standout defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle lead the 2010 version.

Heacock took some time this week to discuss the outlook for Ohio State's defense entering the spring.

Defensively, you really ended 2009 on a high note, and the 'no names' motto really seemed to work well. Is that still the motto for this unit, even though you have guys like Cam and Ross and Brian, who are more well known?

Jim Heacock: I don't necessarily know for sure. Each defense takes on a little bit of an identity. Last year, those terms really fit our defense. There just wasn't anybody that had the big name. We had lost [James] Laurinaitis and [Malcolm] Jenkins and those guys, so it just seemed like [the motto] came together. This year, I assume that we'll have a different identity. We'll have some guys who have played a little bit more and probably have more guys on the field who played last year. So I'm not sure there will be much carryover on that.

I know building depth is always a goal in spring. Are there areas where you will spend more of your time during these practices?

JH: The depth on the defensive line is going to be a little bit of a factor. We've got some guys that have played quite a bit, but depth-wise, we lost some seniors. That area is a place where we've got to find some guys to step up and fill in the gaps. Losing two safeties [Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell] obviously opens up some holes there. Those two areas are going to be critical. Coming out of spring, you always hope you can identify your top-22 players that you feel like you can go to battle with next year.

Players like [John] Simon up front, are those the kind of guys who you'll be looking to for that next step?

JH: Simon is a guy who proved his worth last year, and played a lot of reps for us, got a lot of downs, made some big plays, made some good strides, had a good bowl game. So he's a guy we're counting on to go in there and play in the fall. Nate Williams is another guy who's been getting a lot of reps. He's backed up Thaddeus Gibson for two years now. He didn't start, but he's gotten an awful lot of reps and made a lot of plays for us, so he's a guy who's got to step up as a starter-type guy. And then we've got a couple guys, Dexter Larimore and Cameron Heyward, that have been around for a while. They've got to be the leaders of the group. And then some young guys have got to come on: Solomon Thomas and Garrett Goebel and Keith Wells. It'll be a fun year for the front, just to get a lot of competition going and see who can step up.

With Cameron, you know what he can do. He talked to me about wanting to be dominant every game. What things does he need to do to get to that point?

JH: You take a guy like Cameron, and you know he can play football, and you know he's got heart, he's tough and he's got all those intangibles you don't need to worry about. He can really improve on technique. He can take his game to another level, just with a lot of technique work, a lot of individual work, a lot of pass-rush techniques, a lot of run-defense techniques, just zeroing in on the little things. Any type of improvement in those little areas is going to help him become a little bit more dominant of a player, the player he wants to be.

How good can he be?

JH: He can be an outstanding player.We've had different types of players, Will Smith, who was a great player, and some guys that could come off the edge that were great players. Cameron is a very physical player. His strength comes from dominating the man across from him and playing a physical brand of football and getting a push on the pocket. From that standpoint, he's pretty good.

In Part II: the competition at safety, expectations for leadership on defense