- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
Who: Despite hardly practicing in live situations at all during training camp and still needing to have his reps limited during the first half of the season, Nathan Williams gave the Buckeyes the kind of help up front they were hoping for as he worked back from microfracture knee surgery. Williams might not have had the kind of explosion or lateral mobility that he had before suffering the injury that wrecked his junior season, but he progressively chipped off the rust after a full year on the shelf and wound up making 40 tackles, including 3.5 for a loss. His work ethic and determination as he rehabbed might have been even more valuable for a team with a handful of talented defensive linemen behind the upperclassmen, setting an example that could stick with the program well after Williams has moved on.
By the numbers: The numbers weren't all that impressive individually, but what they might have lacked in each specific category, Williams made up for by putting in entry in pretty much every column in the stats sheet. Among the major statistics for defensive players, Williams chipped in at least one play for each of them -- missing only a safety, a blocked kick and an interception.
Job description: At times, Williams' role shifted between linebacker and defensive end, which requires a unique blend of athleticism and intelligence to handle the various responsibilities needed to give the Buckeyes the ability to change from 4-3 to 3-4 formations and confuse offenses. The next guy to fill the void will have to be able to play in space and win matchups in coverage against the pass, as well as be able to rush the passer when a hand on the ground when Ohio State is looking to get after the quarterback.
Top candidates: Noah Spence wasn't quite ready to take over a first-team job during his first year on campus, but his steady emergence as a freshman helped add valuable depth up front and occasionally allowed the Buckeyes to get more creative with their packages and rotations on the line. Spence was officially listed by Ohio State as the backup to John Simon at the end of the season, but his impressive speed and size (6-foot-3, 240 pounds) that is almost identical to Williams makes him a logical choice to fill a sort of hybrid role for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell -- and perhaps take it to another level.
One to watch: At this point it's safe to assume the Buckeyes went at least 3-for-4 with their recruiting haul up front on National Signing Day last year. Earlier in the season, Urban Meyer publicly declared Ohio State had connected on all four -- and it will be up to Se'Von Pittman to break through in the offseason to deliver the clean sweep after battling through injuries and redshirting during his first year on campus. Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington and Spence each had the benefit of early playing time and might have something of a head start, but Pittman has the physical tools to be a force and the Buckeyes will at least need him to supply depth.
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