Buckeyes Relying on Freshmen

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Last updated: 11/17/2011 2:44 AM

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Football
Buckeyes Relying on Two Key Freshmen to Plug Holes on D
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Buckeyes have been a youthful team since the beginning of the 2011 season, but suddenly the term ‘young’ will take on a different meaning for their upcoming game against Penn State.

The return of senior wideout DeVier Posey will give Ohio State more veteran leadership on offense. On the other side of the ball, they are actually getting younger.

With senior linebacker Andrew Sweat sidelined by a head injury and defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins nursing a knee issue, the Buckeyes could find themselves with a pair of true freshmen on the field for much of the game.

“By this time in the year, we’re always told, they’re not freshmen anymore,” fifth-year senior Solomon Thomas said after practice.

“It’s November, your freshmen aren’t freshmen, so they can’t play like freshmen. I don’t think that worries anybody on our defense.”

Johnathan Hankins
Photo by Jim Davidson
Johnathan Hankins

Head Coach Luke Fickell was a little bit worried on Tuesday about the status of Hankins following an MRI on his left knee. The hefty defensive lineman out of Detroit had to be helped off the field in the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s 26-23 loss at Purdue, but apparently the injury was not as severe is it might have looked.

“He’ll be ready,” OSU co-defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said on Wednesday evening.

Haynes wouldn’t go into any more detail, but kept repeating that Hankins would be ready to play Saturday against the Nittany Lions. The second-year tackle out of Detroit is tied for second on the team in tackles (54) with Christian Bryant and has been an vital part of what Ohio State does defensively.

“He’s real important. All those guys up front (are), but when you can have a dominant guy up there—him and Johnny (Simon)—you win up front,” Haynes said.

“We all know that. It all starts up front. When you can have those guys playing good football, you always have a chance to win.”

The Buckeyes lost senior defensive end Nathan Williams after the season-opener, which has caused Defensive Coordinator Jim Heacock to shorten his rotation up front. If Hankins can’t play this week, or if he is limited by the knee injury, Heacock would likely turn to freshman Michael Bennett.

Michael Bennett
Photo by Dan Harker

“Mike’s another young guy who I’m amazed with,” Thomas said.

“It’s funny because my freshman year I came in with Cameron Heyward and he was an outstanding freshman and Mike Bennett is an outstanding freshman. It amazes me when young guys come in and play. It’s taken me years to get the concept, the size and strength.”

Bennett has 14 tackles in 10 games this year, including three sacks and five tackles for loss. The rookie out of Centerville even reminds Thomas a little bit of his old classmate.

“He does, a little bit,” Thomas said.

“They’re different, but they’re the same. They’ve got a knack to get to the football and knack to pass rush. (They are both) real serious when they’re on the field.”

The Buckeyes may also use more of backups like Thomas, J.T. Moore, Darryl Baldwin and Joel Hale to help alleviate the amount of snaps Hankins plays against Penn State. They won’t have that same option at linebacker, where freshman Ryan Shazier will step in to make the first start of his career in place of Sweat.

“I think the big thing is just playmaker. He has playmaking ability and when he’s out there he flashes,” Haynes said.

Ryan Shazier makes a play against Purdue
Photo by Dan Harker
Ryan Shazier

“He’s a fast kid. He’s not a big kid. You’d like him to be bigger at that linebacker spot. He plays the game fast, he plays the game the right way. Any time he’s in there, he has a chance to make a play.”

Shazier replaced Sweat at Will linebacker this past Saturday after he was forced to leave the game in the first quarter. Not only did Shazier hold his own, he had tremendous game. The youngster from Plantation, Fla. finished with seven tackles, a sack and nearly had the biggest play of the game on defense before his fumble force/recovery was overturned.

“We’re expecting him to go out there and know what he’s doing, and be productive also,” Haynes said.

“That’s the thing about him too, he’s a confident kid. Some kids get out there and get rattled, that’s not Ryan.”

In fact, the coaches have been looking for ways to get Shazier on the field more ever since fall camp. They had him in there to rush the passer when the game was on the line against Toledo early in the season and it was only a matter of time before he forced his way into the lineup.

“Coach (Mike) Vrabel and coach Fickell will have him ready and towards the end of the season he understands what it takes to be a backup and play,” Thomas added.

“You don’t even look at him as a backup. You think of him as a ‘one’ even when Sweat’s playing.”

The Buckeyes still don’t know exactly how long they will be without Sweat, but they are going to miss their leading-tackler on Saturday.

“His leadership. Any time you lose a senior like that who’s played a lot of football like that, it effects you,” Haynes said.

“But Ryan’s been playing well for us. He’s electric. He flashes a lot for us. And Andrew has been around just to help him and show him the way a little bit. Any time you lose a senior like Andrew, it’s gonna hurt you a little bit.”

Or maybe this will be the start of something big for two of Ohio State’s most promising young freshmen.

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