- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Now that spring practice has played out in the Big Ten, we thought we'd try to identify the best overall position group on any team in the league.
Had we done this exercise last year, we might have chosen the Michigan State secondary, a.k.a., the "No-Fly Zone." Ohio State's offensive line would have ranked highly as well, along with Wisconsin's running backs, Iowa's linebackers and Indiana's receivers.
This season, there is once again some stiff competition. The Badgers' running backs are still impressive, with Corey Clement joining the cast in a bigger role with Melvin Gordon. Nebraska's backs are also strong, with Ameer Abdullah and Imani Cross. You could make a case for Michigan State's defensive line, even with two new starting tackles, simply because of the sheer talent of Shilique Calhoun and underappreciated senior Marcus Rush. Other units that could be very strong include Iowa's offensive line, Michigan's linebackers and Maryland's receivers, if healthy.
But my vote for the Big Ten's best position group goes to Ohio State's defensive line.
It's not a crew that is swimming with All-Americans and award winners, though defensive end Noah Spence and defensive tackle Michael Bennett both made second-team All-Big Ten last season. Still, for sheer talent and depth, it's hard to beat the Buckeyes' defensive front four.
Start with Joey Bosa, who had an outstanding true freshman season with 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2013. He should be even better with a year of experience under his belt, and he's one of the top candidates for Big Ten defensive player-of-the-year honors as a sophomore. At the other end spot is Spence, who finished second in the Big Ten in sacks with eight last fall. The junior will have to serve two more games of his three-game suspension to start the season, but Jamal Marcus showed he can fill in adequately after he had six tackles in a strong Orange Bowl performance.
The Buckeyes aren't huge in the middle with Bennett and Adolphus Washington, who both are listed at 288 pounds. But both are very athletic. Bennett started his career at defensive end, and Washington looked like possibly the best player on the line last spring until he moved back and forth in the fall. The junior has finally found a home at tackle.
"I've picked up about 40 pounds since the end of my senior year of high school," he told ESPN.com. "The defensive end spot became so much harder for me to move and carry all that weight. But I've still got my speed in closer quarters with bigger guys who are much slower than me, so I've still got my advantage."
Washington said that "basically, it's all defensive ends on the field," when Ohio State starts its preferred four. That athleticism can do some major damage.
"We've got guys that can pass rush from any spot on the field, and that’s dangerous," Bennett said. "Who are you going to double team? We all have the mindset that if you’re single-blocked, you should get to the quarterback, and we all have the ability to do that."
New position coach Larry Johnson took over from Mike Vrabel this winter, and the former longtime Penn State assistant wants to rotate guys in much more than his predecessor did. The Buckeyes should have the luxury of depth, especially when Spence returns. Tommy Schutt and the 340-pound Chris Carter can help plug the middle, while Steve Miller, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill, Tyquan Lewis and Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier should all contribute in some form. Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson are 2014 signees who could add even more reinforcements.
Ohio State led the Big Ten in sacks last season and finished third in rush defense despite some soft spots at linebacker. The defensive line returns every player of significance from 2013 and has a lot of young players with room to improve.
"I didn't know we could grow as much as we have this spring," Bennett said.
That's a sobering thought for everyone else, and it's another reason why the Buckeyes' defensive line should be the best position group in the Big Ten.