The Ohio State defensive line comes into 2017 with more expectations than they can possibly meet. Don’t expect Larry Johnson to attempt to calm those expectations, however. In fact, his job is to exceed them.
The players themselves have the goal of being the best defensive line in Ohio State history, but Johnson would probably be okay if they’re just the best in the nation this year. With six defensive ends and eight defensive tackles at his disposal to start the season, there should be enough pieces to put together a disruptive puzzle.
For the second straight year, however, the Buckeyes will lose some depth by not having one of their starters up front. Tracy Sprinkle was lost for the season in the opener last year, thrusting Dre’Mont Jones into the lineup and the spotlight. He responded almost perfectly. This year, the Buckeyes will be without nose tackle Michael Hill for at least the first couple of games due to a suspension. When he gets back, those numbers above will then grow by one.
This is as deep as Ohio State has ever been up front, and it’s right where Johnson always wanted to be.
“I think that’s what you want,” he said. “My background has been trying to play as many guys as possible. If you do that, you’ve gotta go grab some talent and what we’ve been able to do is to accumulate some talent and now change those parts around. So yeah, this is where we want to be. Depth-wise is where we want to be.”
Not all of that depth is proven yet. Redshirt sophomores like Davon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell, and Robert Landers have played, but have yet to find the consistency that a rotation needs. Jones was a blessing for the Buckeyes last season. Nick Bosa as a true freshman could not have done a better job as a rookie disruptor.
Yes, there are questions to be answered, but the Buckeyes have been preparing well for the test.
“I think the neat thing about it, you always have somebody that shows up,” Johnson said. “Chase Young. He’s really in the mix here. Then you’ve got Jonathon Cooper, now he’s starting to jump a little bit. And that’s what you want, and the older players should set a bar for the young guys to follow and that’s what happened. Everybody wants a piece of it now.”
The depth is what every coach wants and works toward. What sets this group apart in Johnson’s eyes, however, is the versatility. Jones and Jashon Cornell came to Ohio State as defensive ends. Bosa and Jalyn Holmes can slide inside. Sam Hubbard will stand up more this year. It’s a group that can do a bunch of different things, which is why Urban Meyer challenged his defensive coaches to get creative in the offseason.
Asked to compare this current defensive line with some of his past lines at Penn State, Johnson immediately pointed to the depth as a difference, but it was not the only difference, however.
“I think the depth and numbers is the big difference,” he said. “It’s probably not as big, but probably athletic and can run, change direction really well. But when you get guys that are small, twitchy guys that can play across the ball, probably the most versatile group I’ll ever coach and can play any positions. The tackle can play three technique if I kick him in there. So that’s the difference I think in what we have right now.”
That versatility is now in the hands of defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, and his marching orders this season are calling for more pass-rush aggression than the Buckeyes have shown in years.
This defensive line may not end up meeting expectations, but they’re sure going to make life miserable for opponents while trying to get there.