COLUMBUS, Ohio — In college football, a defense is generally only going to go as far as the defensive line will allow it. No matter what the back seven looks like, if the first line of defense isn't stout, then rarely will anything else matter.
Defensive Line Depth Should Lead to Plenty of Rotation
By Patrick Murphy
If a team is going to have championship aspirations, then a talented defensive line is a must. But a talented defensive line with depth, however, is almost a luxury.
When you are fortunate enough to have that talented depth, it always makes sense to use it, and right now depth might be an understatement for what Ohio State possesses on the defensive line.
Last year, defensive line coach Mike Vrabel chose to play his available starters the majority of the plays. Whether he didn’t trust the young depth or the players weren’t ready, the front four generally remained the same.
“We all ended up with 800 or 600 snaps throughout the season,” defensive end Joey Bosa said. “There was not a lot of rotating. Yeah, we'd get pretty tired.”
With the talent the starters possessed, it was hard to argue with Vrabel’s approach, but new defensive line coach Larry Johnson has a different mentality. The former Penn State coach wants to have a group of players who demonstrate they are capable of playing without a drop off.
“Hopefully what we'll do going into the fall is play eight or nine guys, and to do that we've got to do it in practice,” Johnson said during the spring.
“There's not a first group, there's not a second group. There's a group of guys who are gonna try to work together and be better.”
Fans had the opportunity to see the depth at work in the Spring Game when many of the first-team defensive linemen did not play. In their place, Tyquan Lewis (five tackles, two sacks), Rashad Frazier (sack, fumble, fumble recovery for a touchdown), and Steve Miller (four tackles) – among others – stepped up and played well.
In today’s football, Johnson believes having depth at the position is a necessity.
“The game has changed now,” he said. “You're talking about the spread offense, quick snaps, quick balls getting out of there. That number [of plays] can go from 65 to 90 pretty quick. You add that times 12 games, one guy doing it, that's a lot of football.”
Johnson’s goal is to keep players energized so they can give a higher effort on every play and the talent on this line means they should remain successful.
“What I want to do is play fresh,” he said. “I want to play eight or nine guys every time and be relentless on the football field, that way every guy can play as hard as he can on every snap, and that's how you play defense.”
Logically, this makes sense, but to convince major college football players that fewer snaps are better can be a challenge. Fortunately, Johnson has been around this game long enough to know how to work with young players.
“I've sold them on the idea that there are gonna be eight and nine guys playing,” he said.
“It's not the guy who's starting the game, it's the guys that finish the game that's going to make the difference.”
Maybe Johnson really is a great salesman or maybe the players really were tired last year, but the defensive linemen have bought in to this philosophy.
“You think 'I'm only gonna get 40 snaps rather than 95, I'm gonna be less productive,' but then you have to think, 'Well, I'm gonna be 40 snaps 100% not tired at all,'” senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett said of the rotation.
It is also easier for a Buckeye linemen to check out of a game for a few plays if he knows the guy replacing him will have the same impact. This requires a level of trust.
“You just have to know that the guy that's going in there is gonna make plays too, and when I'm there I need to make plays and do my job,” Bennett said. “It'll be nice to not be as broken up by the end of the season.”
The rotational plan is more complicated than players just checking out when they feel tired. Johnson has a strategy for getting the right players in for certain situations and keeping them fresh.
“We really rotate based on the ball,” he said.
“We're gonna rotate more in the middle of the field. When the ball gets in the redzone or the goal line, we're gonna stay pretty strong with what we've got going on on the field.”
Ideally, Johnson would like some players getting 40 to 50 snaps per game, while others rotate in and get 20 to 30. This way, Johnson believes the defensive line can be more successful than a year ago.
With skilled players along the defensive line, the new coordinator has the luxury to work different combinations to get his desired results. Ultimately, his philosophy is a simple one: “Rotate guys and play fast.”
With the talent on hand, it doesn’t seem like this will be a problem at Ohio State.