Ohio State coach Jim Tressel should feel exceedingly fortunate his team is playing Youngstown State in week one instead of a team like USC. Take nothing away from the Penguins, who came to play against the Buckeyes a year ago in the opener, but facing a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team instead of the No. 1 rated Trojans is a much better situation for an OSU team that will now be without half of its starting secondary Saturday.
With starting cornerback Donald Washington and reserve safety Jamario O'Neal already suspended for the first two games of the season, Tressel announced Thursday the Buckeyes were likely to be without the services of starting strong safety Kurt Coleman as well.
"Coleman rolled his ankle a little bit and we'll probably hold him, although I don't know if we told him yet," Tressel said. "He's the kind of guy, he would play if his leg was broke in half but we have to think about the future."
In the near future, the Buckeyes will head west to play USC in week three, but for now they must break in two new starters on defense that was returning nine from a year ago. Sophomore Chimdi Chekwa will get the nod in place of Washington, and with Coleman and O'Neal both out of the lineup, the Buckeyes are prepared to start sophomore Jermale Hines alongside Anderson Russell in the defensive backfield, although Tressel said he also plans to use junior Aaron Gant and senior Nick Patterson.
As for Hines, the former four-star prospect from Glenville High School came to the Buckeyes as the No. 10 outside linebacker in the class of 2007. Problems with the NCAA Clearinghouse cost him the first half of his rookie season, but Hines jumped right into the fray as an important special teams player for the final seven games of the season.
"You can really draw a conclusion (about Hines) from all the time he missed last year and the fact our coaches still didn't want to redshirt him," Tressel said.
At 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, many felt Hines was too wiry to play linebacker at Ohio State. He continued making moves at the Sam linebacker position in the spring before the staff finally decided to try him at safety this fall.
"Jermale has natural instincts for the game of football," Tressel said. "He is one of those players who can go line up and play a new position without being coached."
His combination of speed and experience at the linebacker position made Hines a perfect candidate for strong safety. It also put him in the mix to play the "star" position for OSU in the nickel defense. Despite playing the position full time for less than a month, Hines was working behind Tyler Moeller at the star position and had already cracked the two-deep at safety.
"He really made a good transition to becoming not just a good hybrid safety but an every day safety," Tressel said.
The addition of Hines gives OSU four sophomores in the starting lineup for the opener, as he will join Chekwa linebacker Ross Homan and defensive end Cameron Heyward. Hines and Heyward are the only two second year players in that group.
Tressel also said on his call-in radio show that cornerback Andre Amos could be a game time decision as well Saturday. With Washington out, Chekwa was already slated to start opposite Malcolm Jenkins, but taking Amos out of the mix would mean more opportunities for senior Shaun Lane and sophomore Devon Torrence. Lane is listed as the backup to Chekwa on the official depth chart and Torrence would slide into backup spot behind Jenkins.
Because the Buckeyes are already without sophomore corners James Scott (did not report to camp) and Eugene Clifford (transfer), it is also possible freshman Travis Howard could see action against YSU. However, Howard was hampered by an injury during fall camp, so it is more likely that one of the freshmen safeties – Orhian Johnson or Zach Domicone – would get the call before Howard.
If Russell and Hines are the starting safeties with Gant and Patterson backing them up, then Johnson and Domicone are probably fourth string right now behind redshirt freshmen Nate Oliver and Rocco Pentello.
Brandon Castel is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.