Addition of Williams, Freshmen Could Give OSU B1G’s Top Line
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS — Big Ten Network senior writer Tom Dienhart mentioned Wednesday he thought Michigan State had the second-best defensive line he has seen this fall.
Dienhart was in East Lansing watching Mark Dantonio’s Spartans practice this week, but he spent last week watching John Simon and the Buckeyes in Columbus.
It was there, in the shadow of the Horseshoe, and under the nose of new head coach Urban Meyer, that Dienhart spotted what he believes to be the best defensive front in the conference.
"The only group of d-linemen I have seen better than this was at Ohio State,” Dienhart mentioned Wednesday.
“But there isn't much of a difference.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
There could be if Nathan Williams can get himself healthy enough to help this team up front on the defensive line. Williams was Ohio State’s best defensive player heading into last season, not just on the line but anywhere on the defense.
He was John Simon without all the extra muscles.
“54 is as good a player as there is in college football…but you want to make a strong (line) stronger is Nathan Williams,” Meyer said this past week.
“We’re counting on him. He’s working so hard. Every time I see him over there, he’s training so hard. We’re really pushing him. If he comes back we’re talking about a real strong defensive line.”
Williams led the Buckeyes in sacks two years ago, and he was third on the team in tackles-for-loss behind Cam Heyward and Brian Rolle. Back then, he was only a role player in his third season at Ohio State, but last year, he was going to be the focal point of the defensive line before the knee injury knocked him out for the year.
It was a tough blow, and one that really did not get enough publicity because of all the other issues surrounding Ohio State last season.
Photo by Dan Harker
“I feel like last year I was lost in the mix,” Williams said recently.
“I felt like as a player that was one of the top returning players on the team, getting hurt and then just vanishing to nowhere, no one mentioning you.”
Head coach Luke Fickell had his hands full just trying to hold the whole thing together after Jim Tressel was forced to resign in May, but the injury to Williams could make the Buckeyes even stronger in 2012 than they would have been.
He was a senior a year ago and would be off trying to make an NFL roster right now.
“You train your whole life,” Meyer said shaking his head about the injury that forced Williams to undergo microfracture surgery.
“He’s a football guy. He loves Ohio State, he loves his teammates, so we’re doing all we can. He’s a good guy.”
Williams has practiced a handful of times this fall, but he isn’t fully back in the mix just yet. The team doctors and trainers are going to take it slow with an injury like his, but not having him available has forced Fickell and the defensive coaches to get other guys ready to play.
Simon moved over to the Leo spot from strongside defensive end last season, and he could be even more dangerous as an outside pass-rusher this season. Sophomore Michael Bennett has assumed Simon’s old spot at strongside end, but it’s the guys behind them that could make this one of the top defensive lines in the country.
“(Our strength) is going to be up front and we know that,” said Fickell, who runs the defense now for Urban Meyer.
“It’s got to be. Those guys have got some experience and we’ve got some depth there with the new guys.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Specifically, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
Classmates Tommy Schutt and Se’Von Pittman also have a chance to be in the mix on the defensive line, but Fickell and Mike Vrabel probably aren’t going to rotate more than 8 or 9 guys this season.
They are going to have to drag John Simon off the field – which would be pretty hard for anyone, even Vrabel – and no one is going to willingly take Johnathan Hankins out of the lineup.
The addition of Spence and Washington, however, does give the Buckeyes more options. Sophomores J.T. Moore and Steve Miller should be in that top 8-9 rotation at end, but Spence brings a totally different dynamic as an off-the-edge speed rusher.
He still has a lot to learn, but the 5-star prospect out of Harrisburg, Pa. is simply too gifted, physically, not to see the field as a freshman this fall. He will likely start out as a edge rusher in obvious passing situations, and he could end up seeing his buddy Adolphus out there with him.
“Adolphus is such a good pass-rusher,” Hankins said.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I feel like I can come out and he would go in there and be able to do a lot of the stuff I can do. He’s quick and he’s learning his technique fast. He’s tough to block and I think he’s going to be pretty good.”
Sophomore Joel Hale and redshirt freshman Chris Carter give the Buckeyes some options at nose tackle behind senior captain Garrett Goebel, but Meyer isn’t going to start touting this group as one of the best around until he sees whether or not No. 43 is going to be out there.
“If you look at the ’06 and ’08 (Florida) teams, that’s as good a defensive line (as I’ve seen),” Meyer said of his two national championship squads.
“If that’s the measuring stick, if we get Nathan Williams I think it’s in that category. If he doesn’t, I think we’ll still be good, but Nathan brings that much sting to you, and also experience.”
Of course that’s the benchmark by which Meyer measures all of his teams.
“That’s where it all starts,” he said.
“If you want to have a bad football team, have a bad defensive line. You can be average in some other spots and hide them, but it’s over if you have a bad defensive line. You have no chance.”
In that case, this team should have a pretty good chance in 2012.
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