OSU Buckeyes: Johnathan Hankins
But the Buckeyes aren't all the way back to where they want to be yet, at least not until there's some company for the last crystal football that was claimed more than a decade ago now.
Meyer's quick work a year ago in guiding Ohio State to a perfect record has put his team directly in the middle of any conversation about national title favorites this fall, and the momentum is seemingly only building after signing two banner recruiting classes to lay the groundwork for the coming years. The combination of facilities, existing talent, the coaches around him and a relatively manageable path to the BCS or the four-team playoff that is on the way all point to the Buckeyes remaining in the hunt for trophies with Meyer around.
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Ohio State 10: Post-spring power rankings, 6-10
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 6: DE John Simon
- Spring movement: The sophomore isn't yet a proven commodity on a game-by-basis in the Big Ten, but he's stepping into big shoes and looks more than capable of putting his own footprints all over the league in his first season as a starter. Washington closed his camp with a flourish thanks to four sacks in the exhibition game in Cincinnati, but it was actually his sack and forced fumble in the win over Michigan last fall that really started to build the buzz for the physical, nimble big man on the edge. The Buckeyes are counting on him to deliver on some expectations that are pretty high heading into summer.
- Key stat: Washington was largely limited to a supporting role during his first year on campus, but he made the most of his chances by chipping in three sacks off the bench -- turning them into a combined loss of 27 yards for opponents.
- Last ranking: No. 5
- Last No. 7: FB/LB Zach Boren
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes have plenty of new faces coming in to lend a hand in the passing game, but Brown will again be the guy Braxton Miller looks for first after the two hooked up 60 times last fall. The big difference for Brown as a senior, though, figures to be how much more he can do with the football once he gets it. Urban Meyer gave the receiver a hard time early last season for his inability to make a defender miss, but that steadily improved throughout the season and doesn't look like it will be a factor again moving forward based on his agility and decisive cuts in camp.
- Key stat: He definitely kept the chains moving, but among the Buckeyes who finished with double-digit receptions last fall, Brown ranked last in that group of four in terms of yards per catch at 11.1 yards. As that total goes up, so will the point total for Ohio State.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 8: DT Johnathan Hankins
- Spring movement: The Buckeyes only had a glimpse at what the freakishly fast Spence could do as a freshman, but that was enough for them to feel good about plugging him in as a starter on the first day of spring camp. By the end of it, the defensive staff had even less reason to worry after the sophomore flashed his athleticism with three sacks in the spring game -- a performance that defensive line coach Mike Vrabel indicated wasn't even his best during camp. Ohio State appears locked and loaded on both edges, and it needs both Spence and Washington to live up to the hype for a completely rebuilt defensive line.
- Key stat: The Buckeyes had no shortage of guys contribute at least one sack, but among the linemen, Washington actually finished second in that group with just three quarterback takedowns -- well behind Simon's nine. Spence offered up one as a freshman, but that number should improve dramatically and help the Buckeyes find a tandem capable of balancing the pass rush on both sides.
- Last ranking: No. 9
- Spring movement: The experience on defense is stockpiled in the secondary, and no voice figures to carry as easily to the front as that of the senior safety. Bryant has made plenty of noise in the past with his vicious hits and a couple notable penalty flags, but there were few players more steady from the start of the undefeated season to the end of it as the ball hawk in the back end. The challenge for Bryant as he takes the next step is turning a few more of his passes defended into interceptions, and off the field he's embracing the fact that the pressure to mold a young defense is partially falling on his shoulders.
- Key stat: Bryant did his part to create some turnovers with two forced fumbles, a recovery and an interception. But it's the last number where the Buckeyes see the most room for improvement. He broke up 12 passes in 2012 but only kept his hands on one.
- Last ranking: None
- Last No. 10: CB Travis Howard
- Spring movement: Bennett won't be approaching his position on the interior the same way his predecessor did, for obvious reasons. But what the junior might lack in size compared to big Johnathan Hankins, he can make up for with technique and speed on the interior. The Buckeyes aren't expecting that change in style to be an issue, and after Bennett was able to stay healthy throughout the spring, that potential doubt about him might be erased as well.
- Key stat: A nagging groin injury limited Bennett to just eight games, and even when he was on the field, his workload was lighter than expected for somebody who entered the year as a potential starter. The Buckeyes will need a full season from Bennett, and definitely could use more than the 11 tackles he contributed as a sophomore.
Ranking potential impact freshmen
2. ATH Dontre Wilson: The spread attack operated just fine a year ago even without Urban Meyer having a dynamic skill-position guy capable of playing his vaunted H-back position. Heading into his second year with the program, Meyer worked overtime to find a versatile rusher/receiver to take the offense to another level, and Wilson is at the top of the list because of a combination of speed and ability to make defenders miss in space. The Buckeyes already have enough options on hand to be even more explosive than they were a year ago, but Wilson figures to supply one more element of danger if his transition to the Big Ten matches his fast times on the track.
3. LB Trey Johnson: His position is among the toughest on the field to play right away, but Johnson is walking into a situation where the Buckeyes are still low on depth and could need him to fill out the rotation after just one training camp. Natural instincts and a seemingly advanced knowledge of the game could give Johnson a head start as he tries to give the Buckeyes another candidate for work at the second level, and he should have plenty of chances to show what he can do on the practice field in August. If Johnson can market himself as an option either in the middle or at strong-side linebacker at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, his odds of making a mark will only get better.
4. WR Jalin Marshall: Another weapon in the open field with a high motor and elusiveness, Marshall will be on the working list of options at H-back along with Wilson. But he could also find some work soon after showing up on campus as a target in the passing game, and the path to the field might be a bit more clear at wide receiver with a relatively thin position group on hand coming out of spring for the Buckeyes. Philly Brown and Devin Smith are the clear starters again after productive seasons a year ago, but there aren't a lot of bodies behind them. If Marshall can absorb his responsibilities on the perimeter and master a handful of routes in a hurry, he could find the ball in his hands with a chance to inflict some pain on defenses.
5. DT Joey Bosa: The Buckeyes landed the elite pass-rushers they needed in Meyer's first class. The second addressed restocking the cupboard on the interior of the defensive line, and the four-star defensive tackle from Florida should help fill that void after Johnathan Hankins left early for the NFL draft and Garrett Goebel graduated. The Buckeyes have some veterans returning who have solid claims to the starting jobs and rising sophomore Tommy Schutt will be a factor inside as well after shaking off some injuries from spring practice. But they could certainly use some fresh blood to bolster the two-deep. Bosa's aggressiveness and violent first step might vault him into that mix sooner rather than later.
Ohio State perhaps wasn’t even too concerned about finding Michael Bennett a position.
The Buckeyes didn’t really need much evaluation of his technique, didn’t have to figure out if the junior understood his assignments or see how well he interacted with teammates as a potential leader for a rebuilt defensive line.
All they needed to see was Bennett healthy throughout the spring, ready to provide the type of production that was expected of him a year ago before nagging injuries largely robbed him of the chance in what amounted to a lost season.
“That was not what I wanted,” Bennett said during spring practice. “But, I mean, you can’t dwell on the negative things that happened to you. You’ve got to keep trying to push forward and just weather the storm.”
The Buckeyes survived the rough patch just fine a year ago, when the versatile Bennett wasn’t available. Even when he returned from a groin issue that he never appeared to truly shake, they kept chugging along to a perfect record thanks to the steady group of veterans on hand.
Bennett was supposed to be an integral part of the unit a year ago, bringing enough size at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds to push for playing time on the inside while adding the kind of athleticism needed to rush the passer on the edge. He left spring practice a year ago technically listed as a backup to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, but the praise for his skills came from the very top of the program, with Urban Meyer making it clear that Bennett was one of the “four best” linemen heading into the offseason.
Had Bennett stayed healthy and remained on that path, the Buckeyes might not be looking at replacing all four starters. Had Bennett not struggled to get back on the practice field or return to full strength, his numbers surely would have looked a bit different than the 11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one recovery that he recorded in eight games.
But Bennett is the first to admit there’s nothing he can do to change that now. And after 15 complete workouts, there’s also even less reason for the Buckeyes to dwell on it.
“Michael had a good spring,” Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. “It was consistent, he was there every day, he didn’t miss any time with bumps and bruises, which is something that he’s done in the past. He hadn’t been able to string a whole bunch of practices together, Michael did that and he was a leader for us. He was a physical presence for us inside, his understanding was very high with what he was being asked to do.
“I think Michael Bennett -- by being out there and being consistent, his message and his toughness and his play -- helps with leadership. To me, leadership is about being consistent in your message and demanding it from other players. But first and foremost, you have to do it yourself, and he did.”
The next step will be doing it throughout the grind of a season, and the task doesn’t get any easier when Bennett’s new position is taken into account.
The Buckeyes are now more settled on the edge thanks to rising sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, leaving little need for Bennett to prove he can be as effective outside as inside. But there’s an enormous hole to fill at three-technique thanks to Hankins’ decision to skip his senior season and turn pro, and if nothing else, having one spot to consistently line up at will make it easier to make sure Bennett is on the field and back in the rotation.
“We need Michael Bennett, we do,” Vrabel said. “Michael Bennett needs some confidence in himself, and he’s gaining it. Michael has also got to stay healthy.
“He understands he’s got to stay healthy, he’s got to take care of his body. It’s not easy in there, but we expect him to do that.”
Bennett met that standard throughout spring. The Buckeyes could certainly use a repeat in the fall.
2012 conference record: 8-0 (first, Leaders Division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 1
Top returners: QB Braxton Miller, RB Carlos Hyde, WR Philly Brown, LT Jack Mewhort, C Corey Linsley, CB Bradley Roby, SAF Christian Bryant, SAF C.J. Barnett, LB Ryan Shazier
Key losses: RT Reid Fragel, WR Jake Stoneburner, DE John Simon, DE Nathan Williams, DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Garrett Goebel, FB/LB Zach Boren, LB Etienne Sabino, CB Travis Howard
2012 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Miller* (1,271 yards, 13 TDs)
Passing: Miller* (2,039 yards, 15 TDs, 6 INTs)
Receiving: Brown* (60 catches, 669 yards, 3 TDs)
Tackles: Shazier* (115)
Sacks: Simon (9)
Interceptions: Howard (4)
1. End game: The Buckeyes have to replace all four starters up front, and while the defensive line isn't quite as deep and is far from a finished product, the future looks pretty bright on the edge. Sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington were among the top prizes in Urban Meyer's first recruiting class with the Buckeyes, and that talent is already starting to shine through as they slide into first-team roles heading into the fall. Spence is a dynamic force with his ability to use speed to get to the quarterback, and Washington isn't exactly sluggish despite all the strength in his 293-pound frame. The two combined for seven sacks in the spring game, and the Buckeyes are expecting similar performances when it actually counts.
2. Air it out: Miller has proven what he can do with his legs, and Ohio State didn't really need to see him show them off in the spring. The emphasis was on continuing to develop the junior quarterback as a passer, which meant a heavy dose of play calls forcing him to put the ball in the air and a quick whistle if he tried to scramble. The results for Meyer were encouraging. His efficient, 16-for-25, 217-yard performance in the spring game showed a much more accurate delivery and better decision-making that hints at bigger things from the fifth-place finisher in last year's Heisman Trophy race.
3. Backfield stable: One thing that might keep Hyde from giving Meyer a 1,000-yard running back this season is all the teammates fighting to snag a few of his carries. The rising senior is the clear cut No. 1 to partner with Miller in the backfield, and Hyde didn't have to earn that job in the spring after piling up touchdowns last fall and finally tapping into his enormous potential as a rusher. But while he was watching some reps, Rod Smith, Bri'onte Dunn and Warren Ball all showed their upside this spring, which has the Buckeyes even toying with a diamond formation that gets three tailbacks on the field at the same time.
1. Filling out the front seven: Shazier is certainly a fine place for any defense to start, but the Buckeyes would obviously prefer if there were at least one other returning starter joining him in the front seven. There are high hopes again for junior Curtis Grant at middle linebacker, but he's been tabbed as a first-team guy before coming out of spring only to fizzle in the fall. Ohio State will need Grant and sophomore Joshua Perry to help lead the charge as it tries to add depth and talent at linebacker to stabilize a defense that will feature a lot of new faces.
2. Fresh blood: There wasn't a great option to fill Meyer's vaunted H-back position last fall, so the Buckeyes effectively had to put the hybrid spot, made famous by Percy Harvin at Florida, on the shelf. Jordan Hall's return from injury makes him a candidate to diversify the offense, but a handful of recruits the Buckeyes landed in Meyer's second class would could really take the spread to another level. Speed-burners such as Dontre Wilson or Jalin Marshall will be watched closely in August as they could become factors for the Buckeyes as early as September.
3. Something special: If the Buckeyes score as easily and often as it appears they might, maybe it won't matter who handles the kicking game. But Meyer has always taken pride in his special teams, and at this point there is still some uncertainty as Drew Basil is pressed into action as both a kicker and a punter. In the big picture, the changes on defense are far more critical -- but close games usually pop up along the way for teams trying to win a championship, and Basil might need to pass some tests for the Buckeyes.
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."
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."
It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
If Urban Meyer had placed a banner with the words "The Chase" in Ohio State's indoor practice facility last spring, he might have been asked, "For what?"
Sure, football players are always chasing something, as Meyer noted Tuesday when asked about the big, bold banner now hanging at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. That "something" can be localized: a starting job, a bigger role in the offense or defense, a scholarship, a coach's approval.
But Ohio State couldn't chase many tangible team goals last spring. The Buckeyes couldn't chase a Big Ten championship or a national championship because of NCAA sanctions. They only found out in September that they could chase a Leaders Division title. Undoubtedly their greatest attribute was an ability to chase the grandest goal they could -- a perfect 12-0 regular season, capped by a win against archrival Michigan -- and achieve it.
The banner makes much more sense now. Ohio State has emerged from the shadow of postseason probation and can chase whatever it wants, including the crystal football that has eluded the Scarlet and Gray -- and the rest of the Big Ten -- for more than a decade.
Meyer and his players can stop there for now. They should, as it's only spring practice. But "The Chase" will be a theme throughout Ohio State's offseason as bigger, broader goals are back on the table.
"Everybody’s got big dreams," Meyer said, "and we as a football team have some dreams."
Ohio State can dream big primarily because of an offense that transformed in 2012, rising from 81st nationally in scoring to 21st and from 107th in total yards to 47th. Quarterback Braxton Miller blossomed in Meyer's system, racking up a team-record 3,310 yards of offense, earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and finishing fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Miller, who spent part of his winter break working with noted quarterback instructor George Whitfield in California, leads a unit that returns nine starters, including four linemen. Ohio State also regains the services of versatile running back Jordan Hall, who missed most of last season because of injury and turned heads during Tuesday's practice.
After delivering scathing -- and accurate -- critiques of Miller, the receivers and the entire offense last spring, Meyer has a much rosier outlook these days. Tuesday, he called Miller's footwork "outstanding" and praised Hall and several other skill players.
"Last year, who knew what as going to happen," the coach said. "I think the appropriate term was 'clown show' at this time. I don't feel like [it's] a clown show."
If Miller makes strides as a passer, Ohio State should have its most potent offense since the 2006 season, when the Buckeyes played for the national championship (coincidentally against Meyer's Florida Gators). The key to the spring -- and to the season, really -- is whether Ohio State produces a typical Ohio State defense. Otherwise, Meyer says, any discussion about "those two words that we don’t use very often" is pointless.
The spring spotlight shines brightest on the defensive front seven. Ohio State lost all four starting linemen from 2012, including Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year John Simon and massive tackle Johnathan Hankins, a possible first-round draft pick. Talented young linemen such as Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence got a taste last fall, and Meyer's staff has recruited extremely well up front, but others must emerge to fill out the rotation. Meyer on Tuesday challenged players such as Steve Miller and Chris Carter to do so.
All-Big Ten selection Ryan Shazier returns at linebacker, but depth remains a major concern for a group that needed fullback Zach Boren to fill a starting role midway through the 2012 season.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won’t. It's pretty simple."
There's also a leadership void to fill this spring. Players such as Simon and Boren made sure the Buckeyes kept up the chase in 2012. Meyer expressed concern last spring at how the team would handle its first brush with failure. Thanks to the seniors, it never happened as Ohio State recorded only the sixth unbeaten, untied season in team history.
The torch has passed to players like Miller, a quiet kid from a quiet family whose voice must be heard more in 2013.
"He needs to be a better leader," offensive coordinator Tom Herman told reporters last month.
Other likely leaders include Shazier and dynamic cornerback Bradley Roby, a big talker who almost always backs it up on the field. Their challenge differs from that of their predecessors, who kept the team focused in spite of the bowl ban, yet did so under measured expectations.
The expectations are back to Tressel-era levels, and perhaps even higher because of the perfect season and Meyer's recruiting success. Anything less than a celebration Dec. 7 in Indianapolis -- and perhaps another Jan. 6 in Pasadena -- will be considered disappointing.
"The chase," Meyer said, "is on."
- Who's back: The void in the middle of the defensive line is substantial, but that doesn't mean it's likely to become a black hole for Ohio State as it transitions to life without Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel. Losing a talent like Hankins early to the NFL draft was a major blow to the defense even if it was expected, and Goebel's senior season was quietly productive and steady even if it wasn't flashy as the combination of the two big guys plugged gaps and often made rushing up the middle a fruitless proposition for opponents. But there are talented guys in reserve up front, even if there doesn't appear to be all that much depth heading into spring practice. Michael Bennett and his versatile set of skills will be put to use on the interior, and junior Joel Hale and sophomore Tommy Schutt both have the ability to handle the first-team load after filling in off the bench a year ago. Those three guys will be the focal point, charged with picking up where Hankins and Goebel left off.
- New face: The Buckeyes have two recent signees already on campus and ready to go to work in the spring, though both are listed as defensive ends and don't appear to have the size needed to battle at the interior spots. But either way, Tracy Sprinkle (6-foot-2, 241 pounds) and Tyquan Lewis (6-foot-3, 223) could potentially allow line coach Mike Vrabel to tinker with his rotation a bit, particularly with somebody like inside-outside guy Adolphus Washington who is capable of playing multiple positions. Natural tackles Michael Hill, Joey Bosa, Billy Price and Donovan Munger will bulk up the group in August.
The work for the 2013 season is already underway for Ohio State with the strength program in full swing, but the first moves that started shaping the potential encore effort from a perfect campaign began almost two months ago. BuckeyeNation is counting down the five biggest early developments for the team since last season ended and how they will impact the Buckeyes moving forward.
No. 2: Bradley Roby decides to stick around
- Development: The combination of a previous redshirt season and a breakout campaign as a sophomore gave Roby something to think about. After more than a month of deliberations, the rising star at cornerback eventually decided that a chance to compete for a championship and boost his stock even more was enough to put his professional dreams on hold for another year. The lightning-fast playmaker had started thinking about parlaying his huge season and the ability to declare for the draft after spending three years with Ohio State into a potential move even before the program had clinched a perfect record, having conversations with the coaching staff about the possibles pros and cons while continuing to play at a high level in the secondary. But he made clear from the start that the opportunity to make a run at a title with the Buckeyes would tempt him, and Roby ultimately couldn't walk away from it.
BuckeyeNation went back as far as 2006 and scanned the recruiting classes for sleepers. Here are five from the last seven years:
Johnathan Hankins (recruiting class of 2010): He was a three-star defensive tackle and the No. 49 defensive tackle in the nation. Hankins is now a projected first-round pick in this year’s NFL draft after declaring early following a standout junior season.
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- Development: The Buckeyes certainly weren't blindsided by the decision, but that doesn't mean it still didn't sting when Johnathan Hankins officially announced he was forgoing his senior season and making himself available for the upcoming NFL draft. The stout, skilled defensive tackle had been projected as a first-round pick all season long, and with his stock unlikely to climb much higher even with another productive campaign for Ohio State, the program was always anticipating there would be a hole to fill in the middle of the defensive line.
- What it means: If it were simply a matter of just plugging one guy in the rotation up front, the Buckeyes wouldn't have much to worry about. But with the other three starters all exhausting their eligibility, the loss of Hankins effectively tipped the scales. It turned a position group that could conceivably have been young, but still deep, into an inexperienced unit that could deal with some growing pains without that veteran presence around. That's not to suggest the Buckeyes don't have the talent on hand to pick up where the departed players off last season, particularly since Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington all picked up some valuable experience off the bench and have tremendous upside. There's no doubt that trio would have benefited from having Hankins back for another season, but with options such as Michael Bennett or J.T. Moore still around, the Buckeyes still figure to be in good shape.
- Numbers game: Replacing four starters is daunting enough on its own, but the bar is set just a little higher considering the contributions up front last year. Combined between John Simon, Nathan Williams, Garrett Goebel and Hankins, the first-team line chipped in 182 tackles -- 31 of them for a loss -- and 13 sacks. The torch has been passed to the rising sophomores, and the pressure is now on to live up to that standard or surpass it.
- He said it: "For me to say we have to get [to the championship] next year, that's like talking about having to go fly to the moon. We're nowhere near having that conversation. You know what we really have to do? We have to find out who can play defensive line for us. We lost some really good players." -- Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer
- 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.
But based on the early projections, Johnathan Hankins won't have to wait long to hear his name called.
ESPN.com's Todd McShay unveiled his first mock draft on Wednesday, and the Ohio State defensive tackle figured prominently in it just two days after officially declaring his intentions to forego his senior season. At this point, McShay is forecasting that the massive interior presence up front will come off the board with pick No. 5 overall, a slot that currently would send him to the Carolina Panthers.
Hankins' status with fellow ESPN.com draft expect Mel Kiper dipped a bit late in the season, and his latest rankings have the Ohio State product at No. 17 among all players eligible for selection.
Other notes from Kiper's latest analysis of Buckeyes:
- Zach Boren currently rates at No. 2 among senior fullbacks, though his stock is rising after finishing the season at linebacker.
- Offensive lineman Marcus Hall is evaluated as the fifth-best junior at guard.
- Hankins is currently ranked behind Missouri's Sheldon Richardson, leaving him at No. 2 among juniors at defensive tackle.
I believed Johnathan Hankins when he said last summer that he wanted to help Ohio State win a championship.
But some NFL draft decisions are made for you. And when you're a virtual lock in the top 15 of the draft, you make the jump, no questions asked.
Hankins surprised no one Monday in announcing he'll forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. The Ohio State junior defensive tackle boosted his stock this season, eating up space and ball-carriers in the middle of the Buckeyes' defensive line. Many NFL draft prognosticators, including our own Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, have Hankins as the first Big Ten player off the board in April.
Hankins won't help Ohio State try to win a national title in 2013, but he undoubtedly made the right call.
"I will always be grateful for the family I have gained here at Ohio State," Hankins said in a prepared statement. "I want to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, coach [Mike] Vrabel and strength coach [Mickey] Marotti for bringing the best out of me as a football player and person, and for their constant support. I also want to thank coach [Jim] Tressel and coach [Jim] Heacock for recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to be a part of this great school and great program."
Hankins added that he intends to finish his degree at Ohio State, which is great to hear. He started every game the past two seasons and finishes his career with 138 tackles (58 solo, 80 assists), including 16.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Although Ohio State expected Hankins to leave, his departure underscores some potential depth issues the team will have up front in 2013. Defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, moves on along with nose tackle Garrett Goebel and defensive end Nathan Williams.
The good news is Urban Meyer has recruited very well at defensive line, securing blue chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington in his first class (both played this fall). Linemen like Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale all should see increased roles in 2013. Ohio State also is bringing in several standout D-line recruits like ESPN 300 selections Joey Bosa and Michael Hill.
Ohio State has a lot of young talent along the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need those players to grow up in a hurry if they want to take another step forward on defense.