COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Heading into the new year and offseason workouts, BuckeyeNation will look at some holes left by the departing Ohio State veterans and potential candidates to fill them, continuing today in the trenches.
Who: The Buckeyes might have held out some slim hope that Johnathan Hankins would return for another year and a chance to compete for a championship, but with his stock already so high, that always was going to be a bonus and not an expectation heading into Urban Meyer's second season with the program. Hankins didn't post the gaudiest numbers during his junior campaign, but his ability to impact the game went well beyond statistics as he occupied multiple blockers, ate up space in the middle of the defensive line and swallowed up any running backs that happened to venture his way as he solidified his NFL stock while the Buckeyes went undefeated.
By the numbers: While for the most part the work Hankins did to anchor the defensive line was hard to quantify in the box score, the junior still finished fifth on the team with 55 tackles. There wasn't much flashy about his approach and he didn't finish many plays in the backfield with just 4 tackles for a loss, but it was a rare sight to see Hankins lose an individual matchup and he simply had to be accounted for by the opposing offensive line on every snap.
Job description: Massive linemen with the ability to move as well as Hankins are few and far between, which is why he's so coveted by professional scouts and why the Buckeyes would have obviously loved to get another year out of him. And while there's nobody that quite fits the 6-foot-3, 322-pound mold physically, there are a handful of guys that come close and will have the chance to pick up where Hankins left off. Ohio State needs somebody capable of handling double-teams on the interior, a tenacious competitor who won't give ground against the rush and somebody capable of collapsing the pocket up the middle in the passing game. The Buckeyes don't necessarily need somebody to stuff the stats sheet individually -- just a player capable of putting others in prime spots to make a play.
Top candidate: The loss of nose tackle Garrett Goebel is significant for the Buckeyes as well, who will be remaking the entire defensive line and will have to identify which pieces fit best in the two interior spots during spring practice and training camp in the fall. Rising sophomore Tommy Schutt appears to be the favorite at this point to build on his early success, particularly given his athleticism and a 6-foot-2, 295-pound body that has plenty of time to be be developed in offseason workouts. Even if he only had limited opportunities to show what he could do last season, Schutt earned some valuable experience and could potentially form a partnership with junior Michael Bennett, who appears to be a likely candidate to play on the interior next season as well.
One to watch: Joel Hale put himself in position to contribute with hard work in practice and the kind of size that can't be taught, and while his chances to impact the game didn't come around all that often either, the rising junior certainly didn't do anything that would rule him out of a more prominent role moving forward. Appearing in seven games, Hale made 6 tackles and was credited with a quarterback hurry while coming off the bench -- and if he can develop his body and his technique a bit more during the offseason program, he might find himself contending for a more regular spot in the rotation.