Breaking down the defensive front.

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Last updated: 05/25/2011 1:25 AM

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Football
Breaking Down the Defensive Front

By Brandon Castel

Remember when the sky was falling in Columbus over Jim Heacock’s low recruiting numbers on the defensive line? All it took was a couple strong classes and all of a sudden the Buckeyes have as much depth up front as they have had in years.

They have even more on the way this summer, and another deep crop of high school seniors on tap for 2012. Needless to say, things are good for Heacock despite the fact he will basically have to replace a pair of four-year starters on the defensive line this season.

Key Losses: Cam Heyward (48tkls, 3.5sks), Dexter Larimore (40tkls, 4sks)

Heyward’s 2010 stats don’t exactly jump off the page, especially when compared to the other starters on Ohio State’s defensive line a year ago, but there is no mistaking the impact Heyward had on everything the Buckeyes did defensively last season. He was their best player up front and the guy opposing teams game-planned to stop. Arkansas certainly tried in the Sugar Bowl, but with little success.

Statistically, the Buckeyes should be able to replace 88 tackles and 7.5 sacks this coming season, but Heyward and Larimore were both guys who always meant a lot more to the team than what showed up in the box scores.

Top Returners: Nathan Williams (46tkls, 4.5sks), John Simon (41tkls, 3sks)

The good news for Ohio State is that Nathan Williams opted to return for his senior season. He wouldn’t have been a first round pick or anything like Heyward, but Williams might have been a mid-round pick had he opted to turn pro after his junior season. He is the guy who will have to produce for the Buckeyes in 2011 from the Leo spot, where they have gotten big numbers in the past from guys like Vernon Gholston and Thad Gibson.

Ohio State’s defense is always evolving, so Williams isn’t asked to do exactly what Gholson and Gibson, which was primarily rushing the passer. He does need to contribute more in tracking down ball-carriers from the backside the way Gibson did his junior year.

The Buckeyes also need more production from John Simon, who seems primed for a breakout junior season. Simon had 41 tackles last year as a sophomore, but he will be moved around a lot up front this year because of his ability to play defensive tackle and strongside defensive end, two positions that have become somewhat interchangeable in recent years under Jim Heacock.

Moving Into the Rotation: Garrett Goebel (9tkls), Johnathan Hankins (16tkls, 1sk), Adam Bellamy (11tkls), Solomon Thomas (14tkls)

This is the group that will need to take the largest step in 2011 if the Buckeyes are going to offset the losses of Heyward and Larimore, two guys who played a ton over their four years at Ohio State. Hankins, Goebel and Bellamy all saw limited time in the rotation last year, with Hankins probably emerging as the guy who spent the most time on the field.

If the spring was any indication, Hankins will slide into the starting lineup at the 3-technique defensive tackle spot with Goebel playing nose tackle. That might sound backwards considering Hankins weighs well over 300 pounds and Goebel is somewhere around 290, but Hankins is a much quicker, more athletic guy, despite his size. Goebel, on the other hand, is a former state wrestling champ with a strong base.

The fifth guy in the rotation will likely be Bellamy, who Heacock looks at almost like a fifth starter because of his ability to play anywhere up front other than Leo. The Buckeyes even showed some 5-man fronts during the spring with Goebel, Hankins and Bellamy all playing inside together. We could see more of that, especially early in the season while Solomon Thomas serves his suspension. Thomas would be the sixth guy in the defensive line rotation, but that spot could go to redshirt freshman J.T. Moore while Thomas sits out.

A few other names to keep an eye on are Darryl Baldwin and Melvin Fellows, who would be a factor at strongside end if he could stay healthy long enough.

Spring Newcomers: Joe Hale (Greenwood, Ind.)

With the depth Heacock has stockpiled on the defensive front, it wasn’t likely that a freshman could come in and make a big splash this spring, but Hale did just that. After enrolling back in January, Hale showed that he is ready to contribute right away for the Buckeyes. A strong kid out of Indiana, Hale can play both defensive tackle and strongside end. He could sneak into the mix. Heacock ideally likes to rotate eight guys when has that many who are ready to play.

Headed this Way: Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Kenny Hayes and Chase Farris

If for some reason Hale isn’t ready to play, it’s a good bet that one of his classmates will be. Though Hale was the first to Columbus, he was hardly the most highly-touted in the class of 2011. In fact, he may have been fourth or fifth. Miller and Hayes are both defensive ends who could play right away, especially Miller because he will be competing with Moore at the Leo spot once he gets on the field in the fall. Bennett is another kid who could push for playing time as a freshman, while Farris is probably a year away.

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