In 2009, the strength the Buckeyes was without a doubt the defensive line. They were talented, they were deep, and they were experienced. Those qualities helped Ohio State shut down the high powered, high paced Oregon offensive attack in the Rose Bowl. It was a fitting end to a great year for the line.
At the beginning of this season, there was little to no drop off in the starting four. Between Cameron Heyward, Dexter Larimore, Nathan Williams, and John Simon, Ohio State was in great shape along the defensive front.
However, depth and experience were a serious concern after losing five key contributors from the rotation. Nothing against the young linemen, but no matter how talented you are, you can’t replace three or four years of experience playing in the trenches in the Big Ten.
In the loss at Wisconsin, it was clear that the defense didn’t have enough gas in the tank to slow down the devastating Badger ground game at the most crucial points in the second half. To put it bluntly, they got steamrolled, and that can be traced directly back to depth and fresh legs along the defensive line.
The good news is that Arkansas shouldn’t have the horses to do the same thing in the Sugar Bowl. The bad news is that Ohio State will need to fill some serious holes along the line in 2011 with players that have yet to prove themselves.
Before I get ahead of myself, here is a look at Ohio State’s defensive line and how they performed in 2010.
The biggest name on the line, Heyward’s decision to return for his senior year had Buckeye Nation expecting huge things in 2010. Disappointingly, those huge things have not panned out.
Blame it on offenses scheming around him, blame it on fatigue due to a limited rotation, blame it on whatever you like, the bottom line is that statistically speaking, Heyward has failed to live up to expectations this season (particularly in the sack department).
Notice I put the qualifier “statistically speaking” in there, because like the linebackers (who’s production has also dropped off from last season), you can’t really be upset at individual performances when the defense as a whole is ranked in the top 5 of every major statistical category.
On the plus side, I am hopeful that the Arkansas coaching staff will take Heyward too lightly, allowing him to go wild in the bowl game. If Heyward is able to remind everyone why he was so highly regarded at the beginning of the season, all will be forgiven, at least by Ohio State fans (NFL scouts may be a different story).
Against a pass happy offense and a not so mobile quarterback, he could be in line for a big finale to his career as a Buckeye.
Only a true sophomore, John Simon seems destined to be the next ‘big thing’ on Ohio State’s defensive line. While it could be argued that he is undersized, he more than makes up for size concerns with amazing strength and tenacity in the trenches.
The highlight of Simon’s season may have been in the Iowa game, when he forced a three and out late in the game almost by himself. While still early in his career, Simon has proven over and over that he is not only capable of holding his own, but that he can be a game changer in the trenches.
Ohio State’s coaching staff has been experimenting with Simon (and many of the other lineman) concerning where he lines up. On the inside or on the edge, his motor is always running full throttle and he has been and will continue to be a pleasure to watch play.
He will be a key player and leader in 2011.
The heir to Thaddeus Gibson at LEO, Nathan Williams hasn’t been quite as flashy as his predecessor, but he has put up similar numbers on the season. The fourth leading tackler on the team and the leader in sacks, flashy or not, he has performed well.
Regardless of production, Williams comes across the line of scrimmage like a cannonball, and when he drops in coverage he is like a fourth linebacker on the field. I have talked about it before, but the versatility that Williams brings to the table is a big part of Ohio State’s flexibility on defense and their ability to utilize multiple schemes.
Only a junior this season, Williams should be back next year as one of the leaders on the line and of the defense.
The workhorse of the defensive line, neither dominant or flashy, Dexter Larimore quietly and steadily goes about his business game after game. When your primary role is to clog running lanes and occupy blockers, your opportunities to stand out will naturally be few and far between.
Despite this, Larimore has quietly put up solid stats in his senior campaign, and perhaps more importantly, has stayed relatively healthy throughout, a feat that he was unable to achieve last season.
Larimore is the kind of steady presence on the defensive line that you don’t notice or appreciate until they are gone. He will be gone after this season, but not before he is rock solid in the middle one last time in the Sugar Bowl.
Speaking of quietly going about your business, that is exactly what Johnathan Hankins has done this year. After rave reviews in the spring, Hankins solidified himself as a key member of the defensive line rotation, playing in all 12 games during the regular season.
Like Larimore, Hankins is a space eater in the middle who doesn’t show up in the headlines or the stat lines, but whose presence is invaluable.
Only a true freshman, he has an extremely bright future ahead of him and looks to be the next rock in the middle of Ohio State’s line.
A redshirt junior, Thomas has yet to make significant contribution on defense. However, he was a solid part of the rotation this season. Much more will be expected of him as a 5th year senior next year.
For the Sugar Bowl, he provides depth behind Williams at LEO.
Providing depth on the strong side behind Heyward, Adam Bellamy is only a red shirt freshman whose best days are still ahead of him. While he has proven a serviceable part of the line rotation in all 12 games this year, he will need to grow from the experience he gained on game day and in the off season.
Like Heyward, Bellamy has the size (6’4″ 295 lbs.) to play inside or on the edge, and he looks to be the future on the strong side.
Always the optimist, I am hopeful that he will improve and be a candidate as a breakout player on the line in 2011.
Another young player whose best years are still to come, Garrett Goebel has been the first man off the bench behind Larimore at tackle. Seemingly undersized in the middle (6’3″ 281 lbs.), Goebel is another player versatile enough to play in the middle or on the edge.
Best described as ‘serviceable’ this season, like Bellamy and Thomas, he will need to grow from his experience this year in order to replace Heyward and Larimore in 2011.