Final Post-Spring Overview — The Defensive Line
By Tony Gerdeman
The Buckeyes have a long-standing tradition of stopping the run, but last year was the first time since 2004 that they didn't finish in the top 20 in the nation against the run. It was also just the second time since 2007 that they didn't finish in the top 10.
A team that can't stop the run and struggles on offense is going to have a difficult time of things, and that's what happened last year. The Buckeyes, however, return nine starters on defense, and all four starters on the defensive line. In fact, if defensive end Nathan Williams can get healthy, then Ohio State would actually have five starters returning for four spots.
Clearly, based just on the returning starters on the defensive line, 2012 should be a better year for the Buckeyes.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Defensive end John Simon is still looking for his natural position. As a sophomore, he started at defensive tackle. Last year, he played most of his snaps at rush end due to Nathan Williams' injury, which asked him to do linebacker things at a non-linebacker size. This season, however, Simon should be able to get more time at the strong side defensive end spot, which most would agree suits him better.
Defensive tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel return to glut the middle like a parade of bad intentions. This year, however, the back seven must do a much better job of making tackles after the line of scrimmage. Hankins and Goebel are the best pair of defensive tackles in the conference, but they can only do so much. Everybody behind them has to perform as well.
Adam Bellamy and Michael Bennett are a pair of versatile linemen who can play both tackle and end. It's no surprise that they are both vying for the open starter's spot in the Spring while Williams' recovers from knee surgery.
There is also young depth like defensive ends Steve Miller, Chase Farris and J.T. Moore, as well as tackles Joel Hale, Chris Carter and Kenny Hayes.
Despite irregular results against the run last year, the assumption is that this line will be up to any task asked of it in 2012. One of those tasks will likely be sacks, which doesn't seem to have been a priority over the prior two seasons. It's hard to think sacks were a serious intention last year when a 340-pound Hankins was put at defensive end on numerous occasions. In fact, over the last two seasons, the Buckeyes have accounted for just 45 sacks—that's the same number Michigan State came up with last year alone.
The idea now is that the defensive coaches will attempt to get as much speed as possible on the field, and that likely won't call for Hankins to play on the outside. There are certainly some very talented pieces to the puzzle on this line, and good things should be expected.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Hankins, a rising junior, has already been talked about as a high draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, so not only will he have the Buckeyes to play for, but he might also have a “contract year” on his mind as well, which can bode well for everyone involved.
Simon was fantastic for much of the year in 2011, but his production dipped at bit towards the end of the year. Did he wear down playing out of position? Was it simply a matter of better competition? The amount of depth on the defensive line in 2012 should keep Simon fresher longer, even though the coaches won't want to take him off the field too often.
Bennett and Bellamy showed last year in significant time that they can both have an impact on this defense, and that is exactly what is expected of them this season.
After seeing Simon this spring, he can be expected to have roughly 128 quarterback sacks this season. That number might be a slight exaggeration, but it's not an exaggeration when used as an indicator for just how dominating Simon was this spring. Still, he'll have to prove it against the competition in order to take that next step towards being a first team All-American. He can look all-world in practice, but until he does it when it matters, all he's doing is making Ohio State's offensive line look bad.
Photo by Dan Harker
Bennett and Bellamy came into Spring practice battling for the last open spot, and it looks like Bennett has won the job as the current strong side defensive end. Last season, Bennett looked like a guy with a positive future, and after seeing him this spring, it's pretty clear that his future has arrived.
It will, however, be interesting to see what happens if Nathan Williams recovers fully and reclaims his starting rush end spot. Simon would then move to Bennett's spot, pushing Bennett to the bench. Still, there will be a very steady rotation on the defensive line as the coaches look to bring in fresh legs constantly.
Depth looks to be okay, with very encouraging play from the likes of Chase Farris and Steve Miller, as well as tackles Joel Hale and possibly even Chris Carter.
Prior to the 2010 season, then defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said he might just have the best defensive line he's ever had at Ohio State. Two years later, the only major contributors from that line who aren't on the 2012 line are Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore, and that was before he really knew what he'd get out of young guys like Hankins, Goebel and Bellamy.
The Buckeyes finished third in the nation in defending the run in 2010, allowing just 96.38 yards rushing per game. That defensive line only accumulated 16 sacks, however, which was down from 23.5 the previous year. While this current unit may not finish third in the nation in defending the run, it should be able to better last year's average against the run, as well as their number of sacks.
The potential of this defensive line will only grow with the influx of freshmen that Urban Meyer brought in, but expecting anything from the freshmen other than cursory depth might be expecting too much. Yes, he brought in the best haul of defensive ends in the nation, but let them get to campus before the pressure of expectations begins.
Overall, this unit returns more talent than anybody in the conference, and also brought in more talent than anybody in the conference the last two recruiting classes.
Do the math.
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