The foundation of any defense is the line, and the Buckeyes are accustomed to nothing but the best. Last year, offensive coordinators had to scheme against defensive end Cameron Heyward. Until a huge Sugar Bowl, Heyward was held in check, at least statistically, much of the season. But the extra attention allowed other defenders some breathing room to make plays. Dexter Larimore was an underrated presence as well, and he's also gone. On paper, though, the Buckeyes should be able to overcome those losses. Nathan Williams is a dangerous pass rusher and John Simon is a load. The new difference-maker in the middle should be Johnathan Hankins, a 335-pound sophomore who has unusual quickness for a player his size.

Can the line be disruptive?

The foundation of any defense is the line, and the Buckeyes are accustomed to nothing but the best. Last year, offensive coordinators had to scheme against defensive end Cameron Heyward. Until a huge Sugar Bowl, Heyward was held in check, at least statistically, much of the season. But the extra attention allowed other defenders some breathing room to make plays. Dexter Larimore was an underrated presence as well, and he's also gone. On paper, though, the Buckeyes should be able to overcome those losses. Nathan Williams is a dangerous pass rusher and John Simon is a load. The new difference-maker in the middle should be Johnathan Hankins, a 335-pound sophomore who has unusual quickness for a player his size.

Who will provide leadership?

The defensive group looks to be on the quiet side in terms of volume. Safety Orhian Johnson likes to chirp, but he's in the minority. Veterans such as Williams, Simon and Andrew Sweat prefer to let their actions speak for themselves, which is in the mold of coach Luke Fickell. But sometimes a player needs to grab the microphone and have the others fall in line. Who will fulfill that role?

Is there depth at linebacker?

Assuming Etienne Sabino can play with a broken left hand, the Buckeyes' starters should be solid. Sabino, Sweat and Storm Klein all have play-making ability. But there's no question that young players will have to emerge now that Dorian Bell and Jonathan Newsome have left the program. Top recruit Curtis Grant has had his share of growing pains, but Ryan Shazier has looked good. Although Shazier weighs only 212 pounds, he isn't afraid to mix it up. Nate Oliver, a former safety, could be a wild card.

Can the freshmen contribute?

Well, they had better be able to. In addition to linebackers Grant and Shazier, Michael Bennett is in the defensive-line rotation and has shown promise. Defensive back Doran Grant has looked good. The Buckeyes also should get a lift from some redshirt freshmen. Bradley Roby has the edge at the cornerback opposite Travis Howard, and lineman J.T. Moore could join Bennett as an often-used sub.

Can the secondary overcome losses?

Injuries hit the Buckeyes hard late in the year, particularly in the Sugar Bowl, forcing seldom-used players into action. The Buckeyes hope that trial by fire will pay off. Ohio State lost senior cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence and safety Jermale Hines. But the Buckeyes have been encouraged by the performance of the defensive backs in camp, and what was once regarded as a potential weakness now might be a strength. Howard has locked down one corner spot. The safety position has plenty of depth with Johnson, C.J. Barnett, Christian Bryant and Tyler Moeller, who plays a hybrid linebacker/safety role.

- Bill Rabinowitz brabinowitz@dispatch.com