Vrabel Hoping Bennett Adds Usable Depth on D-Line
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — One of the most-talked about, least-implemented concepts at Ohio State over the last, well, really over the last decade, has been the use of the tight end.
It’s right up there up with flying cars, sustainable clean energy and eliminating the deficit when it comes to overpromising and under-delivering. Even this year, with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman collaborating to bring a new spread attack to Columbus, the tight end has largely been an afterthought through the first five games of the year.
Senior Jake Stoneburner – part tight end, part receiver – is on pace to catch fewer than 20 passes this season. That’s not the only headline from fall camp that hasn’t exactly come to fruition for the Buckeyes this season.
With the entire defensive line returning from a year ago, including John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, this was supposed to be one of the deepest defensive fronts Ohio State has had in years.
In many ways it is deep, especially with impact freshmen like Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt already seeing more time on the field this season than most of the freshmen did a year ago.
But there was one freshman who played a whole bunch of football for the Buckeyes last season on the defensive line, and the return of Michael Bennett could give Ohio State some sustainable, real depth on the defensive line until those young guys are ready.
Photo by Jim Davidson
“I think Michael was OK,” OSU defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said this week.
“He was rusty. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been out there for a while. We hadn’t had him since training camp, but he’s going to provide some depth for us – some much-needed depth. He had a lot of game experience last year.”
The sophomore out of Centerville became the de facto starter on the defensive line towards the end of last season. He played a little inside and a little outside, but settled into his role as the starting strongside defensive end during fall camp.
He was just starting to find a groove when he injured his groin muscle. That caused him to miss the back half of preseason camp. He was on the field during warm-ups for the opener against Miami (Ohio), but re-injured the groin, which caused him to miss all of Ohio State’s non-conference games.
With the unexpected departure of Adam Bellamy during camp, the Buckeyes have been rolling with basically four guys on the defensive line for most of the year. Spence, Washington and Schutt have all rolled in a little bit, along with J.T. Moore and Joel Hale, but Bennett is a guy who has already earned the trust of the coaching staff.
“So, Michael’s going to help that depth,” Vrabel added, “and then we’re going to try to bring some of those freshmen linemen along.”
While guys like Spence and Washington both look like future stars on the defensive line, they are still freshmen, and thus still learning how to play the position.
“We’re continuing to get our young guys ready,” OSU defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said this week.
“We’re continuing to try to get their confidence up where they can go out there and perform at a high level on Saturdays. Them doing it in practice and them doing it on Saturdays in a Big Ten game is completely different.”
Spence and Washington have both proven to be dangerous pass rushers, which is rather uncommon amongst young defensive linemen who are still learning the nuances of getting off a block at the collegiate level, but they are not yet strong against the run.
Fortunately for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, he has been able to run senior Nathan Williams out there in each of the last three games. The fifth-year senior was Ohio State’s best defensive player at the start of last year, and he is just starting to really look like himself again after a year-long battle to return from microfracture surgery.
“It’s been better. Just where his health is, we’re going to manage it the best that we can, but he’s doing a hell of a job for us,” Vrabel said of Williams, who has 14 tackles and one sack in four games this season.
“He’s playing hard and he’s excited to be back out there playing football. I think he’s putting the team first and I think he cares about his teammates. I think he cares about being on this team right now and it shows.”
Williams led the Buckeyes in sacks two years ago, and his presence gives them more intensity on the defensive line. It also allows the Buckeyes to do more things with Simon and Hankins because Williams can play the Leo position, which often requires him to move around and even drop into coverage.
“He’s not perfect and none of our guys are going to play perfect,” Vrabel said.
“But he plays hard and is trying to play physical. He’s trying to do the things that we’re coaching him to do.”
He seems to be getting closer every week. With a healthy Williams and Bennett, along with the progression of the younger guys, the Buckeyes could finally have that depth they talked about during fall camp.
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