Adolphus Washington is a huge part of Ohio State's future on defense, but he hasn't forgotten the Buckeyes' recent past.
Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.
"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."
Many would say Washington, a 6-foot-3, 292-pound defensive end, boasts more natural ability than Simon, the 2012 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He undoubtedly came to Columbus as a more decorated recruit, rated as the nation's 65th-best player and No. 7 defensive end in the 2012 class, according RecruitingNation. (Simon had no national ranking when he arrived in 2009.)
But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.
"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."
Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.
"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."
Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.
"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."
Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."
The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.
"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."
Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.
"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."
Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.
"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."
Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.
"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.
"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."