OSU Buckeyes: Michael Bennett
From Noah Spence to Adolphus Washington to Michael Bennett to Joel Hale to Steve Miller to J.T. Moore, the names stick out and are full of potential.
Throw in Chris Carter and Tommy Schutt with newcomers Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis, Michael Hill, Donovan Munger, Billy Price and Tracy Sprinkle and the future looks bright.
So why would defensive end Dylan Thompson (Lombard, Ill./Montini Catholic) throw his name in the mix and join the 2014 pledges as future Buckeyes?
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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.
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.
No. 1: Adolphus Washington
- Who: Early in camp, the practice-field highlights of fellow sophomore defensive end Noah Spence overshadowed Washington. Even midway through camp, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer wasn't quite seeing the consistent dominance he was hoping for from a well-built pass-rusher with so much potential. But down the stretch Washington consistently put everything together, stamping himself as a potential worthy heir to John Simon and a developing force with whom the Big Ten will have to contend for at least the next season. With his strength and a frame that tips the scales at nearly 300 pounds, Washington already has seen time on both the inside and the outside of the line. The sack and forced fumble from the edge last year against Michigan provided some evidence that position suits him best, though, and with Washington figuring out how to play with that urgency more regularly, he's clearly got some momentum at that spot moving forward.
- Spring progress: Washington essentially showed up on campus last year physically ready for the game at this level, and he's only going to get stronger as he spends more time in Ohio State's rigorous offseason conditioning program. So that's not an area that will force position coach Mike Vrabel to worry much. Instead he can emphasize fine-tuning technical issues with Washington and motivating him to tap further into his vast potential. The Buckeyes might not have seen instant results, but by the 15th and final workout of camp there might not have been another player on the roster who had done more to win over the coaching staff.
- Jockeying for position: With speed that is almost frightening given his stature, Washington is more than capable of getting to the quarterback off the edge while providing plenty of support against the run, thanks to his 292 pounds. That package will continue to give the Buckeyes flexibility, as he can easily transition from tackle to end, and vice versa. At this point, Washington appears best suited to playing outside, particularly with Michael Bennett, Joel Hale, Chris Carter and Tommy Schutt available to fill out the rotation on the interior. But depending on the situation and the formation, Washington's set of skills could be put to use in a variety of ways.
- He said it: "Adolphus Washington has really raised his level of play, he’s a legitimate player, he’s a starter at Ohio State. You saw him today just have his way with our offensive line at times, and he could be a very good player." -- Meyer, after the spring game
- Closing number: The sacks were easier to come by with quarterback Braxton Miller in a black, non-contact jersey, and his offensive line was also missing a couple starters. But regardless of the degree of difficulty or who was blocking, racking up four sacks in the spring game while making it look routine to get in the backfield offered some public evidence of how destructive Washington could become for the Buckeyes -- validating Meyer's claim a few days before the exhibition that the sophomore's stock was worth buying.
That's typically the formula when the Ohio State coach designates a practice to work on short-yardage situations, but this time it also seemed to come with an attitude bonus.
After taking some criticism for their lack of intensity in the first workout after spring break a week ago, the Buckeyes were clearly energized by the physical challenge thrown at them on Tuesday afternoon at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. And while there were still some things that Meyer isn't all that thrilled about after the sixth full practice, competitiveness wasn't one of them.
"Any time you do short-yardage and goal-line [situations], there’s going to be a lot of collisions," Meyer said. "They start chirping a little bit, and it was a good practice."
Both sides of the ball had reason to make a little noise in a spirited session that stood out not just for the amount of hitting, but also for a larger number of reps for the backups as the Buckeyes start evaluating their depth.
Here's a closer look at four of the developments from the latest practice open to the media.
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."
Ohio State didn't get quite as warm of a welcome from Urban Meyer after returning from a week away from the practice field.
Meyer understood why his team might have looked a little sluggish at times on Tuesday afternoon at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, and he even shouldered some of the blame for the way the schedule worked out ahead of the first full-contact practice of camp. But he doesn't figure to be as accommodating if a few miscues aren't addressed in meetings and cleaned up when the pads come on again.
"I told them, I helped them with the excuses," Meyer said. "We just got back from spring break, first day in pads -- we have to deal with excuses tomorrow.
"It just didn’t feel like a top-five practice. We’ve just got to get back and have one Thursday. The Thursday before we left was maybe the best practice we’ve had since we’ve been here."
That doesn't mean the Buckeyes didn't have some encouraging individual performances or some interesting schematic develops to evaluate in the return to action, starting with these four.
The Ohio State coach couldn't lead a full-contact practice on the first day of spring camp, so there was only so much he could really find out physically about his second Buckeyes team.
But mentally Meyer was able to get a read on where the Buckeyes were when they reported to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center on Tuesday, and those reviews were positive as the work toward providing an encore to a perfect season started on the practice field.
"It was fine, I wasn't really concerned about attitudes, I knew we would have good attitudes," Meyer said. "What I’m concerned with is just the development of some players and after Day One I can’t give you a whole lot, other than we went out in shorts and did have a good attitude. Guys like Tyvis Powell and Pittsburgh Brown and some other guys had good days, thought we threw and caught pretty well.
"It’s the first day in shorts. We’ve got to expect them to [have a good attitude]."
The camp opener did provide a few notable developments aside from the way the Buckeyes approached the workout mentally, starting with these four players/positions.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- Most valuable player: The final season with the program might not have been as prolific individually as expected for John Simon, but good luck getting the two-time captain and team-first senior to complain about his numbers after helping the Buckeyes go undefeated. Simon was hampered by injuries all season long and perhaps had to carry more of the workload than Ohio State initially planned due to a roster that didn't have quite as much depth as initially thought, but he still led the Big Ten in sacks and provided invaluable leadership to help set the tone for future teams under coach Urban Meyer.
- By the numbers: While it seemed for much of the year Simon was having plenty of chances to make big plays in the backfield slip out of his hands, he still wound up converting plenty of them by grabbing hold and throwing them to the turf during his last season with the Buckeyes. If Simon had the benefit of a Big Ten championship appearance, a bowl game or even the final week of the regular season to pad his stats, he surely would have topped the 16 tackles for loss he posted as a junior. In the end, he settled for 14.5 of them -- effectively one out of every three tackles he made went for a loss.
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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
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Task at hand: The opponent is struggling and there's a bye week looming -- two factors that would make it pretty tempting for Ohio State to overlook Illinois. But perfection requires constant attention, and just in case the Buckeyes were in danger of slipping into complacency, coach Urban Meyer put his team through two of the most intense practices it has had in a while, to reinforce the message.
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