Wednesday, November 14, 2012
Freshman focus: Future for defensive line
By Austin Ward
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There's not much uncertainty about where games in a hard-nosed, growing rivalry are decided.
When Wisconsin and Ohio State get together, it's not a secret that toughness is challenged and victories are forged at the line of scrimmage. And after a somewhat sluggish start on the defensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes, that group is finally starting to look like the dominant unit many expected to see heading into the season.
But most of the production, and perhaps the entire starting unit, could be wrapping up their college careers the next two weeks against Wisconsin and Michigan. And while the Buckeyes will obviously have the veterans on hand this weekend and next, it's tempting to peek into the future and see how that unit might look different a year from now, given how important that group will be, since the line is going to have to be rebuilt.
In reality, it essentially comes down to three guys on the field now -- and the three that will have to replace them.
The Edge Rusher
Noah Spence will have some big shoes to fill in 2013.
By the numbers: Williams had some hiccups with his health early in the season as he battled back from microfracture knee surgery, but he's made 35 tackles and two sacks thanks to improving strength and confidence even as he gets shifted around the defensive formation at times. The emergence of Spence has allowed Williams to fill different roles, and he 's made 10 tackles with a sack during his limited time on the field.
The transition: Spence has the speed to be a significant disrupting force coming off the edge for the Buckeyes, and he's also athletic enough to perhaps drop back in coverage and do some of the things that have made Williams so important thanks to his versatility. The key will be continuing to improve Spence's knowledge of the playbook, because there's little question about his athleticism.
By the numbers: Simon is going to go down as one of the most successful linemen in Ohio State history in terms of plays made in the opponent's backfield, and if he had converted all the chances that just slipped away from him this season, his career statistics might really have blown some minds by the end of the season. As it stands now, a player equally capable of rushing at end or playing inside if needed has still added 10.5 more tackles for a loss to his career total, with five of them sacks. Washington has shown some of that same ability while making 2.5 tackles for a loss with a couple sacks among his eight total tackles.
The transition: Washington is listed as nearly 30 pounds heavier and an inch taller than Simon, and he's technically designated as the backup to Johnathan Hankins at defensive tackle. But Washington appears to still have the burst and pass-rushing skills to move out and take on some offensive tackles, and combining those traits with impressive size could allow the Buckeyes to seek out favorable matchups depending on the down and distance in much the same way they have late in the season with Simon.
By the numbers: Individual statistics aren't always that helpful in illustrating the impact Hankins has in the middle of the defensive line, but 50 tackles and four plays made in the backfield at least start to paint the picture. In similar fashion, Schutt's four tackles -- spread out over appearances in eight games -- don't seem like much, but the Buckeyes have put him on the field in some high-profile situations to do some of the dirty work Hankins and senior Garrett Goebel have performed so well throughout the year.
The transition: If Hankins elects to return for his senior season, there's no way to understate how big the boost would be for a defense that is losing significant veteran leadership in two linebacker spots and a starting cornerback in addition to the trio of Simon, Williams and Goebel up front. Should Hankins decide to play for a championship with the Buckeyes next year, that could potentially allow Schutt to fill Goebel's void instead and maybe free him up to use his ESPN 150-caliber athleticism while the big guy continues to eat up blockers. If Hankins goes to the NFL, it might be up to Schutt and Michael Bennett to handle that load as the latter tries to rebound from an injury-marred campaign as a sophomore.