Most Important Buckeyes: No. 16
By Brandon Castel
Considering some of the other names who have already made our list of the 20 Most Important Buckeyes for 2013, Michael Bennett almost seems out of place. It’s a name we didn’t see all too often last season, except maybe on the injury report. It’s possible that with all the talk of younger guys like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, even some Ohio State fans may have forgotten about Bennett.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Search for his name on the internet and you will likely find three or four different Michael Bennett’s who play football, but not one of them is the junior defensive tackle out of Centerville High School. Let’s not forget, however, this is a kid who was ranked as a top 50 prospect in the country coming out of the Dayton-area high school back in 2011. Rivals.com rated him as the No. 3 defensive tackle in the country and the second-best player in the state of Ohio behind some kid named Braxton Miller.
Bennett was a U.S. Army All-American two years ago, but that’s where the injuries started. He broke a bone in his forearm during the all-star game down in New Orleans and Bennett has been struggling to live up to his potential ever since. He showed glimpses during his freshman season, but a string of injuries kept him from playing much of a role during Urban Meyer’s undefeated first season at Ohio State.
What Makes Him Important
For starters, Bennett is one of the few veterans in the front seven with any real game experience. He had 11 tackles and a sack playing in just eight games for the Buckeyes as a sophomore last season, but Bennett played in all 13 games as a rookie under Luke Fickell two years ago. He totaled 17 tackles and three sacks that season, tying him for second on the team behind captain John Simon.
A healthy Michael Bennett will be crucial for the Buckeyes this season because there are so many young guys slated to line up all around him in that front seven. Spence and Washington are true sophomores and no one else up front has played more than a handful of meaningful snaps. The same goes for the linebackers, save for Ryan Shazier, who will certainly make an appearance much higher on this countdown.
“Michael had a good spring. He was consistent. He was there every day,” Vrabel said.
“He didn't miss any time with bumps or bruises, which is something that he's done in the past. He hasn't been able to put a whole string of a bunch of practices together. Michael did that. He was a leader for us. He gave us a physical presence inside. His understanding was very high of what he was being asked to do.”
Bennett’s versatility makes him more than just a veteran placeholder, however. This is a kid with a tremendous amount of natural athleticism and a guy who could fill the void left by Johnathan Hankins as an interior pass-rusher. He can also slide outside and play some strongside end, but his real value is inside. He’s got a good motor and he could be a calming influence on some of the younger guys in the rotation.
What Can Be Expected Of Him
Truthfully, we don’t know exactly what to expect from a healthy Michael Bennett. The kid is oozing with potential, but he doesn’t seem to have that mean streak Mike Vrabel would love to have in his guys up front. Neither did Hankins, but he was such a force on the field that it didn’t matter. Maybe Bennett can be that type of player. He doesn’t possess the same type of size and strength as a guy like Hankins – Bennett is listed at 6-3, 285 on the official depth chart – but we have seen him bulrush offensive lineman deep into the backfield.
We have also seen him go right around them, but where Bennett could be particularly effective this season as a junior is cleaning up some of the pressures created by Spence and Washington on the outside. Vrabel and Fickell know they can’t cut everyone loose up front or it will be a free-for-all, which explains why Hankins didn’t post nearly the numbers people expected him too last season after his big sophomore campaign.
Assuming Bennett is playing a similar role up front this season, it doesn’t seem like a double-digit sack year is in his immediate future, and that’s not really what he’s all about anyway. Bennett has to be a guy who can stop the run inside but also make plays on the quarterback when he’s forced to step up in the pocket because of Spence or Washington coming off the edge. If he can be that guy, there’s no reason he can’t pick up 4-5 sacks this year, assuming Spence and Washington are anywhere close to as good as advertised.
What Would the Buckeyes Do Without Him
The good news for Ohio State is the talent drop off wouldn’t be as steep as the experience drop off. Outside of Bennett, the most experienced player on the defensive line would probably have to be Noah Spence. That’s a scary thought. J.T. Moore has technically started more games, but he’s probably not a guy they’re going to rely on too heavily if the past is any type of indication.
Without Bennett, the Buckeyes might be forced to slide Adolphus Washington inside to play that 3-technique spot and that’s not really his game. He’s certainly big enough to play in there, but he’s not a run stopper. Washington is a massive body who can use his combination of power and speed to overpower offensive tackles out on the edge.
Tommy Schutt, another sophomore, is a guy who could play the 3-technique position. That’s probably the direction they would have to go, but his ceiling is probably not nearly as high as Bennett’s. The Buckeyes would be better off having the ability to rotate Schutt with Bennett and Joel Hale, a natural nose guard who spent most of the spring working with the first-team defense.
Another option for Fickell would be to roll one or two of the new guys in there. They have some interesting options with Joey Bosa, Michael Hill, Billy Price, Tracy Sprinkle and Donovan Munger, but none of those guys have played a single snap. Outside of Sprinkle, none of them have even taken a practice rep at Ohio State. Bosa and Price are probably the two guys to keep an eye on here, but they’re not going to be ready to replace what this team is expecting to get from Michael Bennett as a junior in 2013.