Thoughts on the All-Alumni Team: Defense

Posted by Vico in Buckeye Lore |

The enforcer of the All-Alumni Team defense
The Ohio State University Alumni Association recently unveiled its All-Alumni Team, concluding a long voting process from the fans.  A little over a week ago, I gave my thoughts on the offense, generally pleased with the fan votes with important exceptions at quarterback and wide receiver.  In this post, I continue my look at the All-Alumni Team with a review of the defense.  I find myself generally pleased with the breakdown of the vote, but I still make some comments, even ask further questions for the reader to consider.

Defensive Linemen

The Unit:1

  • Mike Vrabel (954)
  • Jim Stillwagon (909)
  • Bill Willis (581)
  • Will Smith (505)

The fan votes happen to be fortuitous.  The arrangement of four linemen assumes a base 4-3 defense.  This is a staple of Ohio State’s current defense, but it wasn’t always the case.  Defenses under Earle Bruce were more of a 3-4 look and sometimes even a 2-5 base.  Woody even got creative with defensive arrangements.  Still, a 4-3 is nice and basic, and the votes happened to set the Buckeyes up with two defensive ends (Vrabel and Smith) and two interior linemen (Stillwagon and Willis).  Willis is a curious case, mostly because I know little of how he played at Ohio State.  He may have been an outside player on Paul Brown’s defensive line for the Buckeyes, but was inducted into the pro football hall of fame as a middle guard.  So I’m going to roll with that, even though he won his All-America honors as a tackle.  I even think he was honored more for his contributions to offense.

Mike Vrabel is a great fit.  He was a 3 year starter for Bill Young (and later: Fred Pagac) and set many Ohio State records in the process.  His junior season was probably his most productive.  He set a regular season sack record with 13, which was later topped by Vernon Gholston in 2007.  He set a regular season TFL record with 26 for 133 yards lost.  He’s still the career record holder for TFLs (66, 349 yards) and QB sacks (36, 245 yards).  He’s arguably had the most productive NFL career of any Buckeye defensive lineman, albeit as a linebacker (most notably with the New England Patriots).  I think Buckeye fans may expect to infer from his NFL career that Mike Vrabel, the defensive end for the Buckeyes, would be a capable option to drop off into coverage to make the hypothetical All-Alumni Defense even more formidable.  Vrabel did far too much pass rushing for me to believe that Vrabel, the Buckeye linemen, would bring that to the table.

Crowding the ball for the All-Alumni Offense of some other school
I think Jim Stillwagon may have been the most ideal defensive lineman Woody Hayes ever had.  If some of our older readers were asked to describe their ideal defensive lineman, I suspect they’re going to start talking about Jim Stillwagon indirectly.  He was one of the “Super Sophomores”, who are well represented in the fan votes for both the offense and defense.  He was tough, he was active, he played to the whistle.  Yes, he had every superlative you could desire in a defensive lineman.  Perhaps the exemplar of all defensive linemen under the all-too-important tenure of Woody Hayes, Stillwagon is a choice I can’t contest.  Being the first Lombardi Award winner, and having an Outland Award to his name as well, can’t hurt, even when there’s an absence of regular statistics to evaluate him vis-a-vis other players like Dan Wilkinson.

The same holds for Bill Willis.  At 6’0 200lbs, he was a small defensive linemen then.  When you have these All-Alumni Team discussions, you have to control for size and look and consider production.  With that in mind, his strength was clearly his speed.  In the NFL, he was one of the first — if not the first — to time his movement off the ball while on defense and not the man.  Again, I’m going to roll with his nomination here, even though I think he was a tackle for the Buckeyes and not a guard (as he was for the Brownies).

Will Smith strikes me as a debatable selection.  Tell me, which resume do you find more impressive?

  • 2x First Team All-Big Ten
  • 1x First Team All-American
  • 209 career tackles
  • 4 interceptions (as a senior)
  • 2 year starter (I think he was a 3 year starter, but I’ve seen no confirmation of him as a starter his sophomore year)

Compare and contrast with:

  • 1x First Team All-Big Ten
  • 1x First Team All-American
  • 167 tackles
  • 1 interception (career)
  • 3 year starter
Greatest NFL player to never make a Pro Bowl?
The second set of superlatives belongs to Will Smith.  The first belongs to Bob Brudzinski, who, in my opinion, was Woody’s last great lineman.  It’s hard to do a more thorough comparison, mostly because there is no systematic collection of sacks or TFLs statistics for Brudzinski (to my knowledge2).  Will Smith is obviously high on the all-time charts in this regard, finishing 6th in career sacks and 5th in career TFLs.  Still, Brudzinski’s 209 career tackles alone makes him one of the highest ranking defensive linemen in total tackles at Ohio State since linebackers and defensive backs tend to chew up the total numbers on that regard.  My vote would go to Brudzinski over Smith.  For what it’s worth, Brudzinski finished 8th overall in the fan vote.  A defensive end for Ohio State, Brudzinski made his bones in the NFL as a linebacker.  In essence, he was Mike Vrabel before Mike Vrabel.


The Unit:

  • Chris Spielman (1024)
  • AJ Hawk (965)
  • Randy Gradishar (654)

There were certainly no shortage of options here.  With that, this unit may actually be the most debatable and contentious of any on the entirety of the All-Alumni Team.

Greg Lashutka, Woody Hayes, Ike Kelley
One of the immediate problems in constructing a first team linebacker corp from Ohio State’s rich tradition at the position is the litany of middle linebackers.  I suspect there’s always going to be that bias towards middle linebackers.  The position is purposely filled by someone capable of being a leader for the unit and someone who’s able to see most of the field.  Most action on the football field is funneled towards the middle and the stats are going to be inflated a bit as a result.  Thumbing down the list of linebackers receiving votes reveals Spielman, Gradishar, Cousineau, Katzenmoyer, Pepper Johnson, Marek and Tovar to be middle linebackers.  I can’t speak for Ike Kelley and Bruce Elia.  However, if Ike Kelley’s appearance is any indication (seen on the right), he would have to be a middle linebacker.  That’s the scowl of a middle linebacker.

Therefore, a linebacker corp that’s full of middle linebackers may not be a complete unit, if we already want to hypothesize about our All-Alumni Team defense in a game setting.  With that in mind, I think I’m actually fine with a starting linebacker corp of Spielman, Hawk and Gradishar.  In spite of me wanting to flag AJ Hawk as being a product of recency bias, he actually appears to be the most decorated outside linebacker in Ohio State history.  He’s far from the best that Ohio State has had yet, but his career as the weakside linebacker in the Hawk-Schlegel-Carpenter tandem means I’m willing to forgive his presence in the All-Alumni Team defense.  He’s a frequent name in the all-time list of tackles, solo tackles and TFLs in Ohio State history, but behind important linebackers each time.  Still, he brought speed, smarts and leadership to the linebacker corp for the four years he played and did so from the weakside position.  He was a 3 year starter, a two-time All-American, and was even reguarly subbed in during his freshman campaign.  That’s no small feat, considering that was a national champion team.  However, I can object to Hawk getting almost 300 more votes than Gradishar.  He’s not better than Woody’s best linebacker.

On the important Buckstache dimension alone, Spielman gets the nod over Gradishar
There’s also more questions about what to think about Spielman and Gradishar.  If we agree that Spielman and Gradishar are the two best linebackers in Ohio State history, something which I’m inclined to accept as true without too much debate, then who’s the middle linebacker?  Both served that role in their decorated careers as Buckeyes.  If I recall correctly, Gradishar played the middle in a 3 linebacker front.  For most of Spielman’s career, he was the Mike in a 3-4 defense.  Still, the middle linebacker anchors the unit and, basically, the defense.  Here, I’m going to defer to Spielman on basis of tackle margin.  Further, I think there’d be a benefit to lining Gradishar up as a strongside linebacker.  Spielman was probably the bigger gladiator, but Gradishar is typically regarded as one of the most versatile linebackers in college football history.  What would you do?

Still, by nature of the company that Spielman, Hawk and Gradishar keep, there are other good cases to be made for linebackers left out.  First, what about the other #36, Tom Cousineau?  Both Cousineau and Spielman are 3 time All-Big Ten selections and were twice named All-Americans.  Spielman was a Lombardi Award winner whereas Cousineau was not, but Cousineau does have more total tackles3.  Spielman is commonly remembered for his absurd 29 tackle performance against Michigan in 1986, but that actually isn’t the record, per se.  It ties a similar 29 tackle feat set by Cousineau against Penn State in 1978.  Cousineau also had similar herculean efforts against Southern Methodist in 1978 (28), Indiana in 1975 (23), Baylor in 1978 (23) and Michigan in 1976 (22) and 1978 (21).  Cousineau’s senior season in 1978 included 211 tackles.  That’s the best for any given campaign.  If we still give the nod to Spielman, we can at least make certain the Cousineau is the middle linebacker and the All-Alumni Second Team Defense.

Then there’s the curious case of Marcus Marek, another #36.  If you asked the average fan to name who leads all Ohio State players in tackles through the program’s illustrious history, you’d be hard pressed to find a fan that will correctly note that distinction belongs to Marek.  Undersized and never given much value during the recruiting process, Marek went on to be one of the most productive players in Ohio State football history.  He lead Ohio State in tackles for 3 years.  He was the first Buckeye to do that in the process (not even Spielman and Cousineau can boast that), though the feat has since been replicated by Steve Tovar, AJ Hawk and James Laurinaitis.  Marek is one of several “unsung Buckeyes” profiled by Chris at 11W for The Buckeye Battle Cry 2009.  If you haven’t picked up your copy to read that article… and the others, then you know what you have to do first thing tomorrow.


The Unit:

  • Jack Tatum (1201)
  • Mike Doss (884)
  • Antoine Winfield (762)
  • Shawn Springs (710)

This… this is where dreams go to die.  If the All-Alumni Offense of some other school wasn’t questioning their faith in God and Disney storybook endings with the front seven of the All-Alumni Buckeye defense, they certainly would with the secondary.

This is another fortuitous vote breakdown for maintaining a conventional 4-3 defense.  Antoine Winfield and Shawn Springs were both cornerbacks for their careers at Ohio State, whereas Jack Tatum and Mike Doss would be the safeties.  Honestly, I tried to pick this apart.  I tried to say that Mike Doss shouldn’t be there, but I ultimately can’t.  That is, I can provide one caveat: Jack Tatum became a free safety in the NFL, not at Ohio State.  This vote breakdown assumes that Jack Tatum would be the free safety Assassin for the All-Alumni Defense whereas Mike Doss would assist with the boom, if not lower it further outright, from his strong safety position.  It works, but Jack Tatum was a mold of a cornerback and linebacker for the Buckeyes.  He was purposely kept close to the line of scrimmage to assist in run support and outside plays.  His duties resembled that of a strong safety than it did anything else.  If anyone played that free safety position, it was Mike Sensibaugh.  Even then, he was the only safety on the starting defense.  His free safety duties took on more of a center fielder’s role.

Further, with all these selections being recent, I don’t think I need to add anything to them.  That is, I guess I can ask who of the two cornerbacks you thought was the best.  Both had that quality to them where looking over their career stats didn’t tell the full story.  Quarterbacks avoided the two like they were owed back rent.  Winfield alone was an All-American and Thorpe Award winner as a senior in 1998 in spite of not registering a single interception.  When you’re the first non-linebacker in school history to notch 200 solo tackles, you necessarily instill that fear and respect.

Other than that, I got nothing.  I still want to cram Mike Sensibaugh on this list.  I really do.  His 22 career interceptions will probably never be challenged by a Buckeye defensive back ever again.  Any ball thrown in his vicinity was sure to be returned up field by Sensibaugh.  I still want to treat Tatum as a strong safety type player and force Doss off the list in favor of Sensibaugh4.  I can’t bring myself to do it.  Hell, Doss is a 3 time All-American.  I guess I’ll have to leave Sensibaugh (and Neal Colzie and Ray Griffin) for when I construct the All-Alumni Second Team Defense.  That is, I’d do that if there’s any interest there.

  1. Order presented by most votes. []
  2. When did the college game start recording sacks?  It couldn’t have been during Brudzinski’s time.  The NFL only started keeping track of sacks in 1982. []
  3. Spielman has more solo tackles. []
  4. Suffice to say, Sensibaugh is my nickelback in 3rd down and long passing situations, but then which linebacker do I take off the field? []


Written by: Vico | full bio

Vico is the nom de guerre of the founder and current website chair of Our Honor Defend. He is currently living in exile in Alabama.


8 Responses to “Thoughts on the All-Alumni Team: Defense”

  1. 1 bup bup bup

    i’m not so sure that AJ Hawk being on that list is just a product of him playing recently. one thing i think people need to take into consideration is the fact that Gradishar and Cousineau didn’t have to be nearly as versatile as Hawk had to be, and i don’t think total tackles is a great metric for determining how good an LB is. AJ was terrific in both pass coverage and run protection, and having watched literally every game he played in during his OSU career, i can say with certainty that he never, ever had a bad game or took a play off. he’s definitely deserving of being on that list.

    Spielman is the best LB in OSU history. but you already knew that.

    that secondary is absolutely terrifying, i don’t really know what kind of receiver would ever want to run any sort of slant or drag route against that. they’d die.

  2. 2 Todd (not Boeckman)

    Having been attending games in person since the mid 60s and a season ticket holder since Art Schlichter’s debut, I’ve seen all the LBs and DBs in question. I would only make one change to the list: Antoine Winfield gets relegated to Nickle Back and Neal Colzie gets the start. In fact, he gets the start over Shawn Springs too, but its close. But Neal never slipped to cost the Buckeyes a National Championship. I”M KIDDING. But, for me personally, that play may be the most painful single play in my career as a fan. Colzie was the second best DB (behind my favorite Buckeye of all time, The Assassin) in Ohio State history.

    I agree with bup, Spielman was the best LB in Buckeye history and next to Tatum, my favorite Buckeye of all time. My memories are foggy, but I remember Gradishar as an OLB along with Rick Middleton and Vic Keogel was the MLB.

  3. 3 Matt

    Not for nothing, but I’m not overly awed by Spielman’s 29 tackle game against Michigan. He recently discussed that game on ESPN and thought about the 29 tackles in disgust, in that the Buckeye defense couldn’t get the Michigan offense off the field. Hence, 29 tackles. But don’t get me wrong, I love Spielman. I might put Gradishar over him for the all-time best, but only just slightly.

  4. 4 Vico

    Didn’t Neal Colzie have a similar boner in the 1975 Rose Bowl? I think I remember him making a game-changing interception, throwing the ball into the sidelines in the heat of the moment, and getting flagged for it. With it, the Buckeyes lost field position, eventually lost the game and Neal Colzie always had that hanging over his head.

    I know Neal Colzie was one of Woody’s best cornerbacks in college, but I seem to remember him more for special teams at Ohio State than I do for his defense. I guess that’s why I didn’t object too much to Winfield or Springs being in over him.

    It’s a shame Colzie passed on as early as he did. People aren’t supposed to get heart attacks and die before they’re 50 :(

  5. 5 Vico

    You know, in hindsight, I’m starting to wonder if Van DeCree is a more deserving option for the other defensive end spot over Brudzinski.

    Or, of course: Jim Marshall.

    Thinking ahead to the second team, I think I need a strong safety. Sensibaugh is my free safety, and Colzie and either Griffin or Tim Fox will be my lockdown corners. It’d have to be Tree Provost, wouldn’t it?

  6. 6 jack nause

    I have to disagree about Spielman as the best lb in OSU history. But he is in the top two. Hands down it goes to Gradishar. His UM game in 1972 is what set him apart. Those goal line stands he led. That 1973 defense. Tatum was a rover, more safety. Chris would have to anchor the middle because Gradishar was more flexible. Spot on with the secondary.

  7. 7 Vico

    TnB, I think you’re right. I just watched my copy of the 1972 Michigan game, and Gradishar lined up outside, and never over a tight end unless the Wolverines were in a two-tight end set. Even then, the middle linebacker for that year, Arnold Jones, often lined up as nose guard with Gradishar and Middleton lining up over him when they were expecting an inside running play.

    Still, now I feel like an idiot.

  8. 8 Todd (Not Boeckman)

    The boner you are remembering is probably the time in the 1974 Rose Bowl (73 team) when he spiked the ball after a big return. Its the only bowl game I ever attended and for the life of me, I can’t remember if it was a Punt Ret or an Int Ret. But I remember Woody grabbing him by the face mask on the sidelines. He was the original cover corner.

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