Daniel Chi / Asst. photo editor
In his second year as defensive line coach of Ohio State football, Mike Vrabel has a tough task in front of him.
Last year, Vrabel’s defensive line was laden with talent and experience, led by two all-Big Ten first-team selections in senior defensive end John Simon, who was also named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, and junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins.
None of last year’s four starting defensive linemen will be back next season. Simon, defensive end Nathan Williams and defensive tackle Garrett Goebel were all seniors last season, while Hankins declared for the 2013 NFL Draft with one season of eligibility remaining.
This spring, Vrabel must find four new starters for his defensive line.
“I think we’re making good progress,” Vrabel said. “I think that we are finding some guys that want to do it (become starters), certainly that are trying to do it. It’s going to be tough sledding but the great thing is, we go against a really, really good offensive line every day.”
The most experienced returning player on the OSU defensive line is rising redshirt junior J.T. Moore, who has five career starts. But after seeing action in all 13 games of his redshirt freshman season, Moore only played in four games last year.
The Buckeyes could turn to their three other rising junior defensive linemen – Michael Bennett, Joel Hale and Steve Miller – to provide leadership next season.
“As us only being juniors, it’s difficult to step up in those leadership roles, because you’ve been used to having them (older players) there all the time,” Hale said. “Now it’s time for us to step up as leaders.”
Vrabel said Hale’s veteran presence as one of the unit’s most experienced members is very important to the defensive line.
“Joel is a veteran for us. He’s been here two years, and this is going to be Joel’s third season. But he’s a veteran for us, that’s how young we are,” Vrabel said. “Joel kind of keeps everybody together, and keeps them on the right path … he’s an important cog to what we’re doing.”
While the Buckeyes have big shoes to fill on the defensive line, Hale said he and his linemates are trying to form their own identity this season.
“We’re not here to replace those great guys, those great players,” Hale said, specifically mentioning Simon and Hankins. “We’re here to make us as best as we can be to help out Ohio State.”
Hale said the window of opportunity with four starting positions available has increased the level of competition among the defensive linemen this spring.
“It brings a lot of competition within the group,” Hale said. “I feel that with the competition, it makes our whole D-line a lot better. Makes everybody go faster, try harder, everything.”
Among the returning defensive linemen, Bennett has had the most statistical production with 28 career tackles, six tackles for loss and four sacks. Injuries, however, have hampered his progress: last season, Bennett missed five games due to injury.
“We need Michael Bennett,” Vrabel said. “Michael’s got to stay healthy. He understands that he’s got to stay healthy, he’s got to take care of his body. It’s not easy in there, but we expect him to do that.”
From a personal standpoint, Bennett found last season frustrating.
“I would like to say I haven’t played up to my potential yet,” Bennett said. “Last year, like I said, I was coming off of some injuries … I didn’t do as well as I should have.”
Bennett said he needs to step up his game this year.
“I feel like I need to step up in a leadership position,” Bennett said. “I’m going to be hard on myself, the coaches are going to be hard on me and my teammates are going to be hard on me. But hopefully this year I play up to my potential.”
Bennett said he has worked primarily inside this spring as a 3-technique defensive tackle, lining up on the guard’s outside shoulder in the Buckeyes’ four-man front. The 3-technique position is typically reserved for the quicker of the team’s two defensive tackles in a 4-3 defense.
“I go where the team needs me, and right now, they like me in the 3-technique, so I do everything I can in there to produce and let the young guys do their work,” Bennett said.
Three rising sophomores – defensive ends Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and defensive tackle Tommy Schutt – should also figure into the defensive line rotation. All three players saw increased playing time in the rotation as their freshman seasons progressed, and Vrabel said he has been pleased with their progress this spring.
“They’re learning, and they take the coaching, and they get after it,” Vrabel said.
Vrabel pointed to Spence as a player on OSU’s defensive line he expects to step up this season.
“Noah’s got a lot of ability, a lot of God-given athletic ability,” Vrabel said of Spence, who had 12 total tackles and one sack in his freshman season.
Washington played both inside and outside on the Buckeyes’ defensive line last season, finishing the year with nine total tackles and three sacks.
Vrabel said Washington is best suited to play outside at defensive end.
“He probably weighs 285 pounds or whatever he weighs, which he could play inside, but his God-given natural skills are really well suited outside,” Vrabel said of Washington. “He’s got great length, he’s a great basketball player so he is a great athlete. He’s everything that you could ask for … he’s a great kid.”
At defensive tackle, Vrabel said Schutt is a “really good technician.”
Four practices into the spring football season, Vrabel and the Buckeyes still have 11 more practices this spring to continue building up their defensive line prior to the team’s annual spring game April 13, which is being played in Cincinnati this year at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Cincinnati Bengals.