- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There won't be a surprise appearance with an offensive starter magically showing up to save the day on defense.
If there was a candidate to fill Zach Boren's versatile shoes and make that jump, Ohio State would have already pulled that rabbit out of its hat by now.
But just like the Buckeyes had to do a year ago as they prepared for Indiana, they've been hit by a string of injuries that are stretching the defense thin at a crucial point in the season. And while the health concerns haven't forced coach Urban Meyer into a desperate enough situation that he needs to find a new starter from the other side of the ball this week, he is spending a lot of time teaching offensive players to tackle as the cumulative effects trickle down and start creating leaks elsewhere.
"Our effort this week is we're beat up a little bit," Meyer said. "Right now we're just going through it, and it's showing up in our coverage units a little bit. I want to say nine players are out for the season, scholarship players. Seven or eight of them are guys we were all counting on.
"Our emphasis is on teaching people how to tackle. We have five offensive players on punts right now. Never had that. Punt, you go down and tackle. When guys have never tackled in their career, that's bad coaching by us."
It might simply be just bad luck instead, since most of the recent problems have clustered for the Buckeyes on defense. Linebacker Joshua Perry wasn't even hurt on the field, missing last week's game at Illinois after slipping on ice.
But that unexpected issue for Perry, lingering ankle and back problems for fellow starting linebacker Curtis Grant, the season-ending broken ankle suffered by Christian Bryant, a neck injury that forced defensive end Joey Bosa to the sideline last week and a handful of other health concerns for key special-teams contributors have again forced the Buckeyes to get creative late in the season.
Perry is likely to return this week, and Grant could perhaps be back on the field as well. But the roster has not yet been restocked with enough bodies to help Meyer absorb many personnel losses, particularly at linebacker, which remains as thin as it was a year ago when Boren traded in his offensive responsibilities at fullback to plug a hole on defense with just a few days to prepare for the Hoosiers.
The Buckeyes pieced things together at Illinois last week by moving reserve outside linebacker Camren Williams into the middle and playing a lot of nickel and dime packages. But the coverage units were clearly short on tacklers, as they had their worst outing of the season and gave up a long punt return for a touchdown that highlighted perhaps Meyer's biggest area of concern down the stretch.
"Obviously, we've got to improve," Meyer said. "That's our focus this week, getting some players back. The problem is I'm not sure how many of those guys are going to get back, so we're preparing some of the younger guys to either play or play a little better.
"We're spending time. Either you try to create some defensive players, which doesn't usually work this time of year, or you just teach and get better."
The Buckeyes had a ready-made option to create a defender last year in time for the Hoosiers and their high-powered offense. This season, they're just trying to develop enough offensive players to fill out their special teams and make a few tackles.
775dAustin Ward and Michael Rothstein