In terms of “first-world problems”, there are fewer problems more first world than the situation Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson finds himself in this year.
The Buckeyes return eight defensive linemen who played in every game last season, and that doesn’t include defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle who missed the season after playing in 12 games in 2015. That also doesn’t include sophomore defensive ends Rashod Berry, Jonathon Cooper, and defensive tackle Jashon Cornell, who played in 10, six, and five games, respectively.
Nor does this number include junior defensive end Darius Slade, who missed last season with an injury, or defensive tackle Malik Barrow, who redshirted as a true freshman last year. And don’t even ask about the incoming freshmen who won’t be here until this summer. Let Johnson and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano figure out this “current problem” before they tackle the next one.
“Larry has done an incredible job of accumulating a great group there, and then he trains them so well, how are we going to get them all involved?” Schiano asked. “We have to get them on the field in as many different ways as we possibly can. That’s going to be a challenge to us. Are there new packages we do to get more linemen on the field? Maybe. Is there a way we can rotate them and continue to rotate them the way we have, but even more efficiently? Yes. So that’s been one of the things we’ve been investigating.
“I like our d-line. That’s a heck of a group, you know. I think we have really elite defensive linemen and I think we have the best defensive line coach in America, so when you put those two things together, it’s fun to work with those guys, and I’m excited to see how it all comes together.”
Sprinkle won’t be full go this spring, so that at least gives reps to a couple of other players looking to show what they can do. Expect Barrow and Cornell to make good use of the opportunities. Cornell was one of the stars of the spring a year ago while Barrow was still recovering from an ACL injury his senior season of high school.
Meanwhile, reps outside at defensive end won’t exactly be easy to come by this spring due to the depth at the position, but Johnson will find a way to make it happen because the intent is to rotate even more players this season, which the defensive line is all for.
“Coach Johnson, he has a plan in place for everybody so it’s evenly spread out,” senior Tyquan Lewis said. “The reps, that’s really not an issue for us because everybody’s going to get an opportunity to play. I’m all for it. More guys, less reps, your body doesn’t take as much of a beating. Especially if one guy’s hot or another guy’s cold, it’s all over. It’s a win-win situation.”
Some teams rotate simply to rotate because it keeps players fresh, but the best kind of rotation is the kind where there isn’t a drop off from one player to the next. The Buckeyes had that last year both inside and outside, and now everybody is back — and then some. If a player is good enough to play, the job of the coaches is to find snaps for them, and there are more players good enough to play now than there were a year ago.
“That’s another thing, guys are coming back and are getting better,” Lewis said of the younger guys. “They come back improved. Those guys played some last year and now they’re working through spring ball. They have the speed of the game down, and this is the third or second year in the program, so they’re upping it a little more. That’s a good thing.”
It’s not always easy to keep players happy, and some players who are too fresh may feel like they are simply not playing enough. That wasn’t the case last season for the Buckeyes, however, as everyone saw how effective they could be when rotated. Now with the opportunity to be even fresher, it should be no surprise that the players are in line with Larry Johnson’s vision.
“Like everything that he has in place for us, it will be just what he says,” Lewis said. “Our plan is a very solid and great plan. It keeps everybody fresh. Nobody is playing 70 plays. That’s a good thing. Nobody should have to put their bodies through that all the time, and when you have the caliber of players that we have here, you win games like that, with great players.”