Thinking Out Loud on Spence, Washington, Battle at Right Tackle
By Brandon Castel
CINCINNATI, Ohio — Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were the two most dominant players on the field during Ohio State’s spring game Saturday.
That’s not so much an observation as it is a fact. The team’s projected starting defensive ends combined for seven sacks in a “game” with 10-minute quarters, and they did it on a day the defense was playing without its top returning stars – Bradley Roby and Ryan Shazier – from last year’s undefeated season.
The why and the how are equally critical details, and certainly should be considered when weighing the level of dominance shown by Ohio State’s dynamic sophomore duo. These were not actual sacks in the sense where they were bringing quarterbacks to the ground, but it’s also not as if Spence and Washington were lining up against a pair of walk-on offensive tackles during Saturday’s spring game.
For starters, the absence of starting left tackle Jack Mewhort, the team’s top pass protector, along with starter center Corey Linsley, really disrupted the chemistry on the offensive line.
Linsley is still battling a foot injury from last season and Mewhort “got kicked in the leg” during practice the other day. “I thought ‘Why does he really need to go out and do this?’ ” Meyer said rather nonchalantly after the game.
One of the most undervalued aspects of line play is chemistry, and without those two guys, two of the key cogs in Ohio State’s offensive machinery last season, the offensive line simply wasn’t equipped to handle the pass rush it was facing.
The absence of Linsley meant Jacoby Boren, an undersized sophomore, had to step in and play center with the Scarlet offense. More importantly, it meant Taylor Decker had to slide over from right to left tackle, thus opening a spot on the right side for Chase Farris.
That’s still not a bad offensive line from left to right. Decker is probably he left tackle of the future and Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall started every game for the Buckeyes last season. Even Farris has received rave reviews from Meyer and offensive line coach Ed Warinner this spring, but there wasn’t much praise for the line on Saturday.
“That's going to cost me some nights wondering what we're going to do at the right tackle spot,” Meyer said of the ongoing battle between Decker and Farris.
“They're both great kids, they're both talented enough to do the job, but I saw what you saw.”
What we all saw Saturday was a defense that pinned its ears back and came after quarterback Braxton Miller with reckless abandon.
The results were catastrophic: nine sacks for -39 yards.
Curtis Grant had one. Craig Fada, a walk-on linebacker had another. Noah Spence set the tone with three of them in the first half, including one on the third play of the day. He beat Decker twice and Farris once, while Washington cleaned up with two sacks in the first half and two more in the second.
Part of that was facilitated by the game plan. Meyer said from the start he wanted the spring game to be a pass-happy affair, and it was exactly that right from the first play.
Luke Fickell and the Gray coaching staff obviously knew what to expect coming in, so it was a lot easier to turn Spence and Washington loose on the edge knowing Tom Herman and the Scarlet staff wanted to see Braxton Miller throw the football.
The Scarlet offense called 43 pass plays on Saturday and just 11 designed runs. Add in the nine sacks and it looks a tad more balanced at 34 passes and 20 runs, but those sacks were all meant to move the offense down the field through the air.
Add in the pressure that forced incompletion passes and the Scarlet offense –comprised mostly of first-team players – completed 21 passes on the 43 designed pass plays. That’s for an offense that still put 31 points on the board Saturday.
Making Sense of it All
There are two diametrically opposed conclusions we can draw from all of this. The first is that Decker and Farris are not very good, and without Mewhort and Linsley the offensive line never really had a chance to protect Miller in the pocket.
The Ohio State offensive line was clicking on all cylinders at the end of last year, but like Warinner said, that doesn’t necessarily carry right over into the next spring, especially when a team misses out on those 15 valuable bowl practices.
The line protecting Miller on Saturday was missing three guys – Mewhort, Linsley and Reid Fragel – from the one he had in front of him against Michigan last November. That’s a lot of turnover, especially when we’re talking about avoiding a pass rush off the edge.
Miller did a much better job in the second half of stepping up in the pocket to avoid the outside pressure from Spence and Washington, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there. They were still beating up on Decker and Farris for most of the third and fourth quarters, it was simply more noticeable early in the game because they were getting to Miller.
The other possibility, the one Meyer and his staff would love to believe, is the idea Spence and Washington are going to be really, really good.
“Adolphus Washington has really raised his level of play,” Meyer said Saturday.
“He's legitimate as far as a starter at Ohio State. You saw him today just have his way with our offensive line at times. He could be a very good player.”
That duo certainly looked about as dangerous as any defensive end combo in the Big Ten on Saturday, assuming Decker and Farris aren’t completely incapable of handling the starting right tackle position this fall.
Personally, I tend to fall somewhere in between. I’ve been saying it all spring, but I really do think Noah Spence has all the tools to be a special, special player at Ohio State. His work ethic and motor are what sets him apart from other players with a quick first step.
We have seen Decker and Farris and Mewhort and just about everyone else struggle with Spence throughout most of spring ball, and I believe that says more about how good he can be than anything else.
The same goes for Washington, who can look absolutely overpowering at times. His combination of size (290 pounds) and speed is uncanny for a kid his age, and the sky is the limit for him if he learns to play with passion, intensity and maybe a little bit of nasty on every snap.
I don’t think either of them are quite as good yet as what we saw Saturday. The makeshift line put some guys in unfamiliar territory and the pass-heavy gameplan allowed the defense to cut those guys loose.
Braxton Miller would have undoubtedly escaped from a few of those sacks if he was a live ball-carrier, but that doesn’t take away what Spence and Washington showed in terms of their pass-rushing ability.
They completely dominated this scrimmage and made it very difficult, at least for a while, for Miller to run the offense effectively. I don’t think Decker and Farris are complete stiffs, either. If anything, I think Decker is a guy with a world of potential and Meyer is using every trick in his book to motivate the sophomore to reach that potential sooner rather than later.
Farris still seems like a guy who would make for a better guard than a tackle, but he’s a good athlete with good size and strength who is still learning the position. Maybe Evan Lisle can step in and become the right tackle of the future, but right now they need someone to push Decker towards greatness.
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