Ohio State Buckeyes: Nathan Williams

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The wait is over. The season might not be here yet, but football is officially returning with the start of training camp on Sunday.

So after an offseason filled with questions about issues away from the field, the focus is once again back on the game itself. And these five topics will be worth monitoring as Ohio State reports for practice with the great expectations that come with being ranked No. 2 in the preseason poll.

Who is ready to lead?

Urban Meyer and Braxton Miller
AP Photo/Jay LaPreteUrban Meyer would love to see more vocal leadership from quarterback Braxton Miller this fall.
The Buckeyes don't take the captaincy lightly, and the value coach Urban Meyer has put on leadership has never been in doubt, particularly given how much credit the senior class received for the unbeaten season a year ago.

That makes identifying the right group of veterans to take that torch incredibly important for Meyer as he tries to light a path to the national championship, and while a couple of clear choices have emerged to be the face of the program, August will be critical in finding a few more veterans to set the tone.

Left tackle Jack Mewhort and safety Christian Bryant both have emerged as respected voices in the locker room, and Braxton Miller is also starting to find his footing as a more vocal presence. But a couple of other guys who had high hopes of being in that mix are currently or will be facing discipline for issues last month, which will make it pretty unlikely cornerback Bradley Roby or running back Carlos Hyde will be tabbed for a captaincy. Seniors like Philly Brown, Corey Linsley and C.J. Barnett could fill that void, and junior linebacker Ryan Shazier will need to set an example on defense as well.

What's the state of the passing attack?

Miller will always go under the microscope first, and the quarterback is usually the safest place to start in breaking down a passing game. But he certainly wasn't the only one responsible for some numbers through the air that weren't up to Meyer's standards last season.

Miller has worked hard on his footwork and should be much more at ease with the playbook entering his second year in the spread, but he could also use some better route-running, fewer drops and a bit more depth at wide receiver as Meyer looks for more diversity in his attack. Brown should provide some reliability after a productive junior season, and if he builds on the end of it where he consistently looked like a threat to explode after the catch, that alone will make the Buckeyes more dangerous. But he needs some help from freakishly athletic counterpart Devin Smith, rising sophomore Michael Thomas, veterans Chris Fields and Evan Spencer and a handful of newcomers to help keep the coverage honest.

Are the youngsters ready up front?

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesAfter an eye-popping spring game, defensive end Noah Spence is eager to prove himself in games that count.
The spring game only dumped more gasoline on what was already a bonfire of hype, with Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington stealing the show by combining for seven sacks. But that was only an exhibition, and the Buckeyes are counting on production from those sophomores when it matters.

All four starters are gone from the defensive line a year ago, and while the interior spots are obviously more unsettled than the starting jobs at end, the pressure to perform and the attention will weigh more heavily on Spence and Washington. Both showed flashes of what they could do when given a chance as true freshmen a year ago, but they'll be expected to play like seniors now that John Simon and Nathan Williams are gone.

Can Taylor Decker keep the offensive line at the top of the Big Ten?

Ohio State has fewer concerns about its offensive line than just about any program in the country, and a unit with four returning starters who are all seniors might be more than any other staff would even think to wish for. But that didn't stop Meyer from doing a bit of hand-wringing in the spring about filling the fifth spot at right tackle, and he didn't leave practice in April officially settled on who that guy would be.

It's clear now that Decker will get the nod, and the oversized sophomore will have eyes on him throughout camp to ensure that he's capable of seamlessly replacing Reid Fragel for a unit that was a significant factor in the perfect season last year. Chase Farris shared some of the reps with Decker in the spring and his potential continues to excite the coaching staff, but for now Decker has the advantage. But he'll have to prove over and over in August that the edge is real, and if he does, the Buckeyes could pick up right where they left off.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The last of the lists is out, and Ohio State has players all over them.

From the offensive line to the secondary, the Buckeyes had more than their share of representatives on the various preseason hype lists, which is no surprise given how high the team will rank collectively when the polls come out ahead of the opener in late August.

Obviously not everybody expected to contribute to a potential national-title run found a way into the minds of the various committees who ultimately will hand out the hardware once an actual season has been played. But just in case there was any confusion, appearing on a watch list in July isn't mandatory to lift an individual trophy in December -- just ask Johnny Manziel.

So with that in mind, BuckeyeNation offers up its own helpful list for potential voters heading into the season, taking a look at some Ohio State players who will bear watching and conceivably could draw some attention to themselves before the year is done.

Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence
  • Who should be watching: Nagurski, Lombardi voters
  • Why: The sophomores didn't play enough a year ago to generate any sort of national buzz, but there's little doubt they each have the athleticism and playmaking ability to become household names quickly this fall. Playing behind veterans in John Simon and Nathan Williams helped bring the talented bookends along slowly while still incorporating them in the rotation during their first year on campus, but the Buckeyes will need to unleash them with those seniors gone and the spots in the starting lineup waiting for Washington and Spence to show their potential off to the rest of the country. The glimpse they showed in the spring game only reinforced how high the ceiling is for the duo, even if it was only a scrimmage.
  • Dark-horse chances: No matter how much damage Washington's strength or Spence's speed inflicts on Ohio State's opponents, neither is likely to seriously challenge a destructive force like Jadeveon Clowney this season. But with breakout campaigns now, they definitely can lay the groundwork for a future run at individual glory as juniors.
Nick Vannett
  • Who should be watching: Mackey committee
  • Why: Jeff Heuerman gave the Buckeyes one entry on the watch list for the nation's best tight end, and he's certainly a deserving candidate who can make life tough for defenders with his ability to create physical mismatches in the passing game while still chipping in as an effective blocker for the rushing attack. But there's another guy on the Ohio State roster who fits that bill as well, and it's the ability to pair Heuerman and Vannett together that could make for weekly headaches for defensive coordinators trying to decipher what Urban Meyer is doing with his spread attack this season.
  • Dark-horse chances: At this point, it would be reasonable and perhaps fair to peg Vannett's chances of winning an individual award at the same level of Heuerman heading into the season. After all, both are going to figure prominently in Ohio State's plans for the offense this year and are equally capable of providing a reliable target for Braxton Miller and building the kind of statistical resume needed to win over voters. That might hurt the chances for both of them in the long run, but Vannett shouldn't be overlooked.
Marcus Hall
  • Who should be watching: Outland, Lombardi voters
  • Why: The Buckeyes have such a rich supply of senior starters, at least one was bound to be overlooked in the offseason. The right guard drew that short straw for Ohio State, but that certainly doesn't make Hall any less important to the offensive line or even that unlikely to draw some sort of individual acclaim by the end of the season. He left camp as perhaps the most improved member of that veteran offensive line, and position coach Ed Warinner wasn't shy about pointing out the refinements Hall made as a technician in the trenches. Perhaps Andrew Norwell, Jack Mewhort and Corey Linsley were all more deserving of spots on the various watch lists for linemen, but Hall really couldn't have been that far behind.
  • Dark-horse odds: The Buckeyes might have a battle on their hands just to pick the most valuable blocker on their own team, so standing out from the group enough to generate the kind of national support needed to win a personal trophy will be a challenge for all four seniors up front. But at a minimum, Hall's contributions aren't likely to go unappreciated by the Ohio State coaching staff and his teammates.
2012 record: 12-0

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)

Spring answers:

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.

Fall questions

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.
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."

[+] EnlargeAdolphus Washington
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesAdolphus Washington knows he has some big shoes to fill as he replaces John Simon at defensive end.
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."
Mike Vrabel enters only his third season in coaching following a 14-year NFL playing career, but the Ohio State assistant might never again face a challenge like the one that sits before him.

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.

[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesOhio State is counting on players like Noah Spence to deliver for an inexperienced defensive line.
"We're not going to claim to be experienced," Vrabel told ESPN.com on Thursday, "but we're going to go out and continue to improve. They work, and they're committed to being great."

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."

Spring forward: DEs breakdown

February, 20, 2013
With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore in 2013 of an undefeated season is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.

    • Who's back: The Buckeyes don't exactly have a shortage of talented defenders returning to the fold up front, but it's what they're missing that will dominate the discussion heading into spring and the summer workouts. The storied career of John Simon is over after one more dynamic season on and off the field, and after battling back from injuries to contribute on the other end of the line, Nathan Williams is out of eligibility also. There's never been much doubt about how bright the futures are for Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, and in limited action as true freshmen last fall, they showed flashes what they can do. But the Buckeyes won't need potential when September rolls around -- they'll need production, and those two and rising junior Steve Miller are at the head of the line and waiting for redshirt freshman Se'Von Pittman to join them.

(Read full post)

Offseason countdown: Hankins moves on

January, 22, 2013
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.

[+] EnlargeOhio State's Johnathan Hankins
AP Photo/Scott BoehmReplacing Johnathan Hankins will be among the Buckeyes' biggest tasks heading into the 2013 season.
No. 4: Johnathan Hankins declares for the draft
  • 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

Next up: Replacing Nathan Williams

January, 2, 2013
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.

    [+] EnlargeNathan Williams
    Greg Bartram/US PresswireNathan Williams made the most of his senior season in his return from a serious knee injury.
  • 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.

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.

Year in review: Veterans anchor DL 

December, 4, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A position-by-position look at a perfect season for Ohio State, continuing today by rewinding to break down a defensive line that had high expectations at the beginning of the year and was starting to live up to them by the end.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Greg Bartram/US PresswireOhio State defensive end John Simon had 14.5 tackles for loss in 2012 as a senior.

  • 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.

Senior sendoff: Looking for happy ending 

November, 21, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There is no shortage of fairy tales in the senior class.

A tight end made a transition to right tackle, struggled early and became one of the most important blockers on the team. A fullback moved over to defense in the middle of the season and became a starting linebacker after three days of practice.

A cornerback overcame an up-and-down career to lead the team in interceptions, much like a linebacker who took his time developing finally emerged as a marquee playmaker. A defensive end battled back from microfracture surgery and played almost the entire season. A two-time captain is playing at perhaps the highest level of his career and reaching rarified air in school history.

The Buckeyes have special stories all over the place, and of course, they've all added up to something pretty magical in the win column as well. Their collective tale won't exactly be cheapened if it doesn't end with a victory in the blood feud with Michigan on Saturday at Ohio Stadium, but the coach who has only been with them for one season would clearly prefer to help write a happy ending.

"What they’ve done, I know this is a very proud tradition here at Ohio State, but what they’ve done -- I want to do the best I can that they can find a way to win this game," Urban Meyer said. "And they could go down in the history books as one of the greatest senior classes of all time."

First things first, the Buckeyes have one more major hurdle ahead of them in the bid for a perfect season. But heading into the last game in the careers of those seniors, three of them have stood out this year as perhaps under-appreciated for what they've offered compared to some higher-profile veterans.

Nathan Williams

  • Position: Defensive end
  • Stats sheet: 39 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries, a pass broken up and a forced fumble

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Ohio State 10: Week 11 power rankings 

November, 19, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe Ryan Shazier is running out of time to take over the top spot in the power rankings.

But the Ohio State sophomore is building a pretty strong case as the best defensive player in the Big Ten -- and he's also starting to give Braxton Miller a run for his money.

Shazier delivered another highlight-reel play that won't be forgotten by the Buckeyes for a long time, even if it ultimately didn't end up going down as a game-winner after he punched the ball loose from Wisconsin tailback Montee Ball at the goal line in the fourth quarter of the 21-14 overtime win on Saturday. And while that resume still leaves him a spot behind Miller in the latest edition of the Ohio State 10, he might be No. 1 in a different poll soon if he keeps up his torrid pace for one more week.

No. 1: QB Braxton Miller

  • Last week: No. 1
  • Against Wisconsin: The sophomore clearly didn’t have his best stuff and was effectively bottled up by the Badgers' sound game plan, but that doesn’t diminish his value for the Buckeyes through the season. And what Miller might have lacked on the stats sheet over the weekend, he more than made up for by keeping his record as the starting quarterback perfect this season.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Freshman focus: Future for defensive line 

November, 14, 2012
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
[+] EnlargeNoah Spence
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesNoah Spence will have some big shoes to fill in 2013.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Ohio State 10: Week 10 

November, 5, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There wasn't much room for movement.

Ohio State did what it had to do against an overmatched opponent, and it got key contributions from all the usual suspects Saturday in the weekly power rankings in a 52-22 throttling of Illinois.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the top spots on offense and defense remain the same heading into the bye week, though there was a bit of shuffling deeper into the rankings. Thanks to this needed off week of recovery for the Buckeyes, those spots are safe for close to two weeks now until the trip to Wisconsin is in the books and the attention turns to The Game -- and a potential run at perfection.

No. 1: QB Braxton Miller

  • Last week: No. 1
  • Against Illinois: Challenged throughout the week to clean up some fundamental flaws with his throwing motion, the sophomore responded with one of his most efficient outings through the air as he carved up the Illini. If not for a couple of drops, Miller’s stats could have looked better while completing 12 of his 20 tosses for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns and adding 73 rushing yards and another score.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

Four downs: Keys to OSU-Illinois 

November, 2, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Critical areas for the Buckeyes as they welcome visiting Illinois with a chance to tighten their grip on the division. The game will be televised live on ESPN at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday from Ohio Stadium.

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.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider


Did Ohio State Cheap Out On Championship Rings?
ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell discusses Ohio State's decision to spend less than the maximum allowed on rings for its players.