A multi-year starter for Ohio State’s most prominent athletic program, a standout leader of an experienced returning group and a guy who spends much of his free time with roommates — none of whom are on his team.
No, it’s not OSU basketball’s Aaron Craft, but senior defensive lineman for the football team Michael Bennett.
Bennett, a starting interior defensive lineman for the Buckeyes, came into spring practice as not only the elder statesmen on the defensive line, but a key player for the unit.
“He’s a great leader. I think our players respect him as a leader,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said after practice March 27. “He’s played a lot of football … When he opens his mouth, guys are listening to him right now. That’s the kind of leadership you want. So I’ve been very impressed with Mike, his leadership skills on the field and off the field. He’s a great student, and we’re looking for great things from him. He’s a senior, he knows he’s a guy that’s gotta move it forward. When we talk about moving a yardstick and I think Mike’s doing a great job moving forward. He’s doing a great job for us as a group.”
The line, which also returns standouts in juniors Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington as well as sophomore Joey Bosa, is one of the more experienced units for the Buckeyes in 2014.
But with a new coach and Spence suspended for the first two games of the year after reportedly testing positive for MDMA, Bennett is going to be looked to for leadership even more.
“I think we look pretty good,” Bennett said March 27. “A lot of stuff has changed from coach (Mike) Vrabel, from what he taught, but I think the guys really bought into it early from the first two practices. We really started to get what coach Johnson was about, and how we need to start doing things.”
Vrabel has since gone to the Houston Texans of the NFL, and the line is undergoing a transition period while getting used to Johnson, but Bennett said what he has seen from the group has really impressed him so far this spring.
“The guys are really adapted and changed, and I don’t know if you guys could notice today but we were getting after the ball, we were running to the ballcarrier and stuff like that,” Bennett said. “I’m really excited with where we’re going to be. We’re a lot better than we were last spring.”
In 2013, Bennett finished tied for third on the team in sacks (7.0) and fourth in tackles for loss (11.5), prompting CBS Sports to label him as the top NFL prospect at defensive tackle in 2015.
Since Johnson joined the coaching staff in January, Bennett has moved to the nose guard position, and is set to play alongside Washington on the interior. Johnson said he thinks Bennett has the skill set to thrive at the position.
“Quickness is a key for me on the inside,” Johnson said. “It’s not about how big you are, it’s quickness. The things we do, we want to be a penetrating defense — attack the ball. With all the spread teams … guys are like, ‘Oh he’s only 295.’ Well that’s good enough. You have a 320-pounder and get caught on a 15-play drive, that’s pretty tough. So I like to play the quickness, we like to play quickness, and Mike brings that to the table.”’
Bennett said Johnson has brought an intensity to the unit that will improve things in the upcoming season.
“He wants us to go 100 percent to the ball every play … With coach Johnson he wants us running all the way until the ball is on the ground. He wants strip sacks, not just regular sacks,” Johnson said. “Just little stuff like that. He’s really adamant about going until the whistle blows and then getting back on the line and not being tired.”
But even with all of his experience and presence on the line, Bennett might see a drop in playing time once the season kicks off Aug. 30 at M&T Bank Stadium against Navy.
Johnson said the change could come because of the talent in the unit, and that more player rotations are likely.
“We’re working a lot of combinations trying to figure out what’s going to be the right eight,” Johnson said of the possible groups that will play on the line. “I think each guy’s got a different set. I tell our guys, ‘You might be able to play goalline. You might be able to play short yardage situations.’ I think each guy is going to have a role. Just to say what that role is, we won’t know yet until we finish spring ball and continue to evaluate.”