Ohio State's defense was a tremendous disappointment last season—especially in the final three games, when Michigan, Michigan State and Clemson combined for 1,617 yards and 115 points, and the Buckeyes stumbled to a 1-2 record and needed to pull their sole victory out of a hat.
Even during that collapse, though, the one thing Luke Fickell's unit did well was get to the passer and force negative plays. It had eight tackles for loss against Michigan State, part of a season when it had 91 total tackles for loss—the 19th-best total in the country.
Ryan Shazier is gone from the outside linebacker position, but in defensive ends Noah Spence and Joey Bosa, Ohio State returns two players who had 13.5 tackles for loss last season. The only other team in the country that can make that claim is Clemson—and as one of those players, Stephone Alexander, is a linebacker, the Buckeyes are the only team that can make that claim about pure defensive lineman.
Which raises an obvious question: Will Ohio State have the best defensive line in college football next season?
And an even more obvious answer...
Spence missed the Orange Bowl and is suspended for the first two games of the season after testing positive for ecstasy, per Adam Rittenberg of ESPN.com. That will hurt in Week 2 against Virginia Tech and (especially) the previous week against Navy, but form-wise he should be a full-go when Ohio State's schedule matters most.
Even after the reported transfer of Jamal Marcus, who replaced Spence valiantly in the Orange Bowl, that will leave the Buckeyes with a dominant top-two and OK depth at the end position:
|Top Eight Ohio State Defensive Ends|
|Career Stats||247Sports Composite Rankings|
|Noah Spence||62 TKL, 15.0 TFL, 8.5 SCK||No. 5 Overall; No. 1 WDE (2012)|
|Joey Bosa||44 TKL, 13.5 TFL, 7.5 SCK||No. 37 Overall; No. 4 SDE (2013)|
|Steve Miller||16 TKL, 7.0 TFL, 4.0 SCK||No. 61 Overall; No. 4 SDE (2011)|
|Tyquan Lewis||n/a||No. 285 Overall; No. 12 SDE (2013)|
|Rashad Frazier||n/a||No. 985 Overall; No. 57 SDE (2010)|
|Tracy Sprinkle||n/a||No. 637 Overall; No. 34 SDE (2013)|
|Jalyn Holmes||n/a||No. 81 Overall; No. 4 WDE (2014)|
|Dylan Thompson||n/a||No. 464 Overall; No. 23 SDE (2014)|
|Darius Slade||n/a||No. 873 Overall; No. 42 SDE (2014)|
|Source: cfbstats.com / 247Sports|
Spence put up better stats, technically, than Bosa did last season, but anyone who watched the games knows that Bosa is the best defensive lineman on the team—and arguably in the conference. He bullied his way into the starting lineup as a true freshman and logged all but four of his 13.5 tackles for loss in the final six games of the season.
Bleacher Report's Michael Felder—the college football department's resident film guru—said he was doing things as a true freshman that it usually takes college players two years to master:
Despite this, there have been questions about the Buckeyes' depth now that Marcus has left the program. Especially in the first two weeks, when Spence will be out of commission, those like Brian Bennett of ESPN.com have voiced concern about the edge:
Senior Steve Miller and redshirt freshman Tyquan Lewis are the likely top candidates to start at defensive end, along with Joey Bosa. Ohio State will be thin at the position against Navy and Virginia Tech. Incoming recruits Jalyn Holmes, Darius Slade and Dylan Thompson might have to get ready early
If the Buckeyes can weather the storm -- especially against Navy's cut blocks -- then they should be fine when Spence returns. But figuring out the defensive end rotation now becomes a major priority this summer.
While fair—in theory—Bennett's questions fail to mention Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier, who was one of the highlights of spring camp and (especially) the spring game. He had two sacks in the first nine minutes of that scrimmage, forcing a punt with the second and falling on a fumble he forced for a touchdown on the first.
According to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors, that performance was no true surprise. Frazier had been talked up all spring by defensive line coach Larry Johnson and teammate Michael Bennett:
And speaking of Bennett, we haven't even touched upon the Buckeyes' defensive tackles. Bennett was an All-Big Ten performer up the middle last year, and Adolphus Washington, a former end who looked good alongside Noah Spence in 2012, is transitioning to the inside—where he has the size (6'4", 288 lbs) to be a dominant force.
And therein lies the essence of OSU's line.
Bennett is an Aaron Donald-type: undersized but impressive shooting the gap and getting in the backfield. Washington is a converted end and a former blue-chip recruit. Spence and Bosa are both candidates for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year.
And all four of these guys could share the field…together!
On a 3rd-and-7 with the season on the line and the offense needing the ball back, the Buckeyes—a team with well-noted secondary issues—could drop seven players into coverage and send four great pass-rushers at the quarterback. No gimmick, no disguise, no outside blitzer necessary. Just let them pin their ears back and go.
There are questions about depth, and those questions are fair. But between Frazier, Steve Miller, Chris Carter, Tyquan Lewis, Tommy Schutt, Tracy Sprinkle, Michael Hill and blue-chip incoming freshman Jalyn Holmes, it should not be an issue that lingers.
There will still be a deep rotation.
"I felt we were very, very good last year and now you've got every single person coming back," said Bennett (before Marcus' transfer decision), according to Doug Lesmerises of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. "We could have nine or 10 guys who aren't just substitutes but could start anywhere in the country."
They might also have five future pros.