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Big Ten spotlight: Ohio State's Jim Heacock

9/10/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Terrelle Pryor has garnered most of the attention this week, but Ohio State can't beat USC without a superb defensive performance, especially up front. USC boasts arguably the nation's best offensive line and unquestionably the nation's deepest group of running backs, led by junior Joe McKnight. Veteran Buckeyes defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has the challenge of trying to stop the Trojans.

Heacock stopped by to chat about Saturday's matchup (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), his new-look defense and who he needs to step up against USC.

USC obviously has a lot of weapons, especially at running back. Where do you start in preparing to defend this team?

Jim Heacock: You look at it all because that's what they are. When you talk about an offensive team, you can't zero in on any one area. They've got the receivers, they've got the running backs, and the offensive line is where it starts. They've got some athletic and experienced offensive linemen. The quarterback had a good game last week, they do a good job protecting him, and the running backs are well documented. Where we start is we've got to stop everything. You can't gang up on the running game or they'll get you, and you can't gang up on the passing game. They're about as balanced as you can get.

Your defensive line is one of your strengths. With their line being so athletic, so lean, do you go at them with speed? How do you attack a line like that?

JH: Well, our defense in general is fairly young, so it's not like we're going to make a lot of changes. At the back end, we're really young and at linebacker, we're awfully young. We're going to do what we do, play our defense, and you're going to hope you can match up. But we're not in a position, with our experience, to make a lot of changes. Our goal is going to be to execute.

How did those young guys grade out last week? Obviously, it's the first game, it's an odd opponent [Navy] with an odd offense. It's clearly a different test this week in many ways.

JH: It's challenging enough for it to be your first start, and then to have to face a disciplined approach from Navy, it was tough for them. I thought they responded well, they graded out well and did a good job. Unfortunately, at times, we'd have a mental breakdown or a physical breakdown. We'd go to the dive when we should have gone to the quarterback, all those things. But they prepared really hard for that offense and they played hard throughout the game. I was really happy to see the turnover with the two-point [conversion attempt] in a critical situation. It sets the tone, and hopefully you can build on it the rest of the season.

When you're facing so many different running backs from USC, do you just tell your players, 'Just tackle the guy with the ball,' or do you have to prepare for each back's strengths?

JH: And they're all really good. You can't separate them. They all can catch the ball, they're good out of the backfield, they can all pass-protect, they all obviously run extremely well. We haven't been able to say, 'This guy, we're going to do this, and this guy does that.' They're all good, they're all talented, they all can be effective.

Anything stand out to you about [Matt] Barkley in his first game?

JH: His poise. He had great poise throughout the game. He threw the ball on target. He just looked like he never got rattled at any time. He had a great day.

I know Thad [Gibson] finished last season on a high note and made several plays against Navy. How big of a factor is he in this game with some speed on the edge?

JH: I don't know if we have a lot of big names on this team. In the past, we've had that luxury of having some name players. This team, we don't have a lot of names, and the strength of this team is going to have to be that word: team. That's the direction we've got to go, and so what we've got to ask Thad to do is play his one-eleventh of the game and then play and do his job and not get out of character and try to do things he can't do.

How did the linebackers look last week? You mentioned you've lost some big names there, but obviously Brian [Rolle] came up with a big play.

JH: Brian played well. He was active, which we knew he would be. He can run around and make plays. I thought he played well. Like with everyone else, he had a few mistakes and a few things he can get considerably better at, but he played well. Ross Homan, he's played a little bit in the past but not a whole lot, and he got his feet wet. When you're playing an offense like [Navy], there's another dimension added to playing defense, and that's a real discipline. You read, stand there, and you take away a little bit of the aggressiveness defensively. Hopefully, this week we'll be able to see what kind of attitude we can play with. It's going to come back down to the team concept and guys doing their job and executing.

Did anyone stand out to you in the secondary? It looked like Jermale Hines gave you a lift.

JH: Jermale played a lot last year as our nickelback, but he's competing for the starting safety spot. The guy that stood out, if anybody did, would be Kurt Coleman. He caused a fumble and actually got two turnovers. He's a guy that certainly stepped up.

You mentioned with a young group, you can't change the scheme too much. Is it just about executing better against a team like USC?

JH: There's really nothing else you can do. I don't think at a time like this you want to go out and wholesale change what you're doing or try and X-and-O 'em to deal. My philosophy is you never do that. We're better when we know what we're doing and getting lined up and playing ball. You do what you do and do what you do best and that's when you play the fastest.