COLUMBUS, Ohio -- On paper, they were a problem.
They were the kink in the grand Ohio State plan, these nine new starters on defense. The offense was championship caliber, everyone agreed. The question was whether the unfamiliar faces in charge of tackling and covering could compensate for one of the great talent drains in recent college football history.
They were all replacing multiyear lettermen, and three were stepping in for first-round NFL draft picks. It was up to this callow crew to maintain an elite unit that ranked fifth in the nation in 2005 in both total defense (281.3 yards per game) and scoring defense (15.3 ppg).
Try as they might, these raw rookie starters didn't maintain it.
They improved it.
The Replacements of '06 have been better, statistically, than the Studs of '05. These Buckeyes lead the nation in scoring defense (just 7.8 points per game, best at Ohio State in 33 years). They're eighth nationally in total defense but are allowing 20 fewer yards per game than last season. And they've cranked up their takeaways from 12 in 12 games last season to 27 in 11 games this season.
So much for being problems on paper. They've been great on grass.
The reality is that this defense has shredded the August premise that the Buckeyes would have to score their way to a national title. They've been No. 1 every week and stand one win away from playing for the championship because of a brilliant balance of O and D.
"We have come a long way from the standpoint of outsiders and fans," senior cornerback Antonio Smith said. "On the inside, we knew we always had the characteristics and capabilities of being a good defense.
"We didn't have a lot of big names, but we knew we had what it took to be a good defense."
They had a lot of no-names.
Fifth-year senior Smith was a walk-on who didn't earn a scholarship until last spring, and who had never started a game before September. He's responded with 58 total tackles, second on the team, including nine for loss, and has a pair of interceptions.
Defensive end Vernon Gholston had never played more than three minutes in a game until this season. Today the redshirt sophomore leads the Buckeyes in tackles for loss with 14 and is second in sacks with 7½.
Linebacker Marcus Freeman had a single solo tackle and three assists to his college credit entering the season. The redshirt sophomore has 53 total tackles this season, third-best on the team.
And then there is sophomore linebacker James Laurinaitis, whose pre-September notoriety did not extend beyond being the son of Joe Laurinaitis, aka "The Animal" of Road Warrior pro wrestling fame. Now he's a Butkus Award finalist, leading the team in tackles (91), interceptions (five) and forced fumbles (three).
"It's really satisfying, especially from the perspective in the preseason where no one gave us a chance," said senior defensive end Jay Richardson, who has come out of relative anonymity himself to record 7½ tackles for loss, three sacks and six broken-up passes. "Everyone said that we would be the weak link of the team. They didn't know how we'd turn out."
They've turned out stout enough to have surrendered one or fewer touchdowns in 10 of 11 games. Four of the nine TDs Ohio State has allowed came in the fourth quarter, with the Buckeyes up at least two touchdowns. Explosive as the Troy Smith-led offense can be, it has never needed more than 18 points to win a single game all season.
Nobody was predicting that during the preseason. And don't think the Buckeyes defenders aren't aware of that.
"We had a chip on our shoulder," safety Brandon Mitchell said. "It definitely gave us some of that additional motivation to prove everybody wrong."
Beyond paper, there were reasons to believe in these guys from the beginning. Jim Tressel would rather trade in his sweater-vest for motorcycle leather than field a bad defense. There's simply no way he'd put a porous unit on the field. He's always going to spend plenty of scholarships on blue-chip defensive players, and on coaching them up.
"Knowing the defensive staff that we have, knowing the type of kids we have, I expected them to roll up their sleeves and try to get good at their craft," Tressel said. "And I knew they'd have good leadership."
The leadership starts with the two returning starters, tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson. Pitcock in particular has been phenomenal on the field, racking up 10 tackles for loss and a team-high eight sacks.
That's made him a finalist for the Lombardi Award, which doesn't seem right to the big man with the tight perm.
"I see LaMarr Woodley play, [Paul] Posluszny, I feel like I shouldn't even be in the same category with them," Pitcock said. "It's an honor."
Modest as he purports to be with the media, Pitcock has an entertainer's side that he shows off on Thursday nights. That's when he gives his weekly motivational address to his teammates.
None of the Buckeyes is willing to give up details of the Thursday night psych show, but this apparently has become quite a production. Pitcock has been known to scour the Internet for pictures of opponents that can be photoshopped for comic purposes, then put a dramatic twist on his presentation.
"It's like a play, I guess," he said.
If Pitcock were to create a play about this Ohio State defense and the August concerns it generated, the November title would be, "Much Ado About Nothing."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.