Bennett Injury Could Shake Up D-Line Rotation
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS — It will be interesting to watch how first-year defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and his best pal Mike Vrabel treat their rotations Saturday on the defensive line.
Fickell’s predecessor Jim Heacock – the man who both coached him as a player on the defensive line in the mid 1990s and then became his boss at Ohio State under Jim Tressel – loved to rotate 8 or 9 guys across the defensive front.
He once told me the concept was forged during the waning moments of Ohio State’s 31-14 thrashing at the hands of Bobby Bowden’s Seminoles in the 1998 Sugar Bowl. The Buckeyes were a 10-2 football team that year with losses to Penn State and, you guessed it, Michigan.
But they were no match for Florida State quarterback Thad Busby, who swung the ball all around the field that day for 334 yards – 176 of which went to E.G. Green, who was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
That award might have gone to star defensive end Andre Wadsworth, who had two of FSU’s six sacks and one of their six interceptions – yes SIX picks – except longtime defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews was rotating guys on his defensive line faster than Coop could keep track.
“Quick, relentless pressure throughout the ballgame,” marveled then-OSU coach John Cooper.
“Their pass rush was the best I've seen in a long time. We did not have time to throw the football.”
It was there, in the agony of defeat, Heacock decided to emulate Andrews’ effective strategy – after all, football has almost always been a copycat game. But the Buckeyes haven’t always had the talent to do what Florida State did to them back in New Orleans.
That was especially true last season, after the Buckeyes lost senior Nathan Williams for the season after just one game. Heacock scrambled to develop some younger guys around juniors John Simon and Garrett Goebel, but he did not have many options.
Luckily, sophomore Johnathan Hankins had gotten himself in good enough shape to be a force in the middle of the defense, but Heacock’s front got little to no pressure as the season wore on.
Fickell is hoping that won’t be the case with his group in 2012. The Buckeyes return almost everyone from the defensive line a year ago, although redshirt junior Adam Bellamy left the team for unspecified personal reasons during fall camp.
Photo by Dan Harker
One of the young guys who did emerge for Heacock last season was freshman Michael Bennett. The Centerville product had three sacks and five tackles-for-loss as a rookie, and he is expected to be a mainstay on the defensive line this season, except a nagging groin injury has kept him from practicing much this fall.
With Simon playing the ‘Leo’ spot – a hybrid rush end/ outside linebacker – on the other side, Bennett had emerged ahead of Bellamy as the starter at strongside end. He is expected to play in the season-opener, but groin injuries can linger well into the season if not treated properly. It wouldn’t be prudent to expect Bennett to play more than a series or two against the Redhawks.
Re-enter Nathan Williams
That should open the door for some younger guys to see some MACtion in the opener, but it could also clear the way for a familiar face. Almost a year after playing what could have been his last game at Ohio State, Nathan Williams is back.
Now a fifth-year senior, Williams was among the team-leaders in sacks and tackles for loss two years ago, but he is coming off microfracture surgery.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“He has great hands and he’s a quick-twitch guy,” Meyer said on Wednesday after practice.
“People told me he was one of our best players the couple last years on defense. He looked really good (Tuesday). He’s a good player, obviously.”
If he is back to full strength – and full speed – Williams is better than good. He could be great. He could be better than Simon, if he’s right. It’s probably going to take some time to shake the rust off, but the good news is defensive line is any easy spot to get reacquainted with the game.
Even if he’s physically ready to play at full speed Saturday, Williams isn’t going to get a full workload right out the gates. They are going to be cautious with that knee, and there is no need to push it against a team like Miami.
However, Meyer does want to control the Redhawks’ passing attack with his pass rush, which means guys like Noah Spence, Steve Miller and even J.T. Moore should see plenty of time on the defensive line Saturday.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Spence is the guy to really keep an eye on. The freshman from Pennsylvania is considered to be the best pure pass-rusher on the defensive line, and the best athlete in the group according to Simon.
Another guy who should see some action Saturday is Adolphus Washington. Like Spence, he was a star defensive end prospect in high school, but he’s grown into a guy who will likely spend a lot of time inside.
Washington told me his goal as a freshman is to make sure there is no drop-off if Hankins has to come out of the game. Freshman Tommy Schutt could also see some time at the 3-technique spot and Joel Hale should get a look at nose tackle behind Goebel.
That would put them at 11 guys, including Bennett and Williams, who could be in the rotation on Saturday. It could even be 12 or 13 if Chris Carter or Se’Von Pittman get in the game.
From a number standpoint, that’s more guys than they are going to use later in the year, especially once they start Big Ten play. Fickell and Vrabel are not going to want to take Simon or Hankins of the field unless they absolutely have to. Same with a healthy Nathan Williams, but right now they need to figure which 8-9 guys they can count on.
DEFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART
54 John Simon (6-2, 260, Sr.)
88 Steve Miller (6-3, 255, So.) OR
8 Noah Spence (6-3, 240, Fr.)
52 Johnathan Hankins (6-4, 317, Jr.)
92 Adolphus Washington (6-3, 289, Fr.) OR
90 Tommy Schutt (6-2, 305, Fr.)
53 Garrett Goebel (6-4, 285, rSr.)
51 Joel Hale (6-4, 295, So.)
72 Chris Carter (6-4, 358, rFr.)
63 Michael Bennett (6-3, 277, So.)
50 J.T. Moore (6-3, 250, rSo.)
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