Johnny Simon was a third-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten choice who led the Buckeyes with 16 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Sophomore Johnathan Hankins finished fourth on the team with 67 tackles and surprised with his athleticism and ability. Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy settled into starting roles and were solid players as well.
But there was one thing missing from the way the Buckeyes played along the line in coach Jim Heacock's last year in Columbus – sacks. Ohio State finished 72nd in the nation with only 1.77 per game, and there were times opposing quarterbacks had time to sit in the pocket and scan the field to convert crucial third downs.
Simply put, the Buckeyes lacked a true edge rusher who could make opposing tackles look silly and scare quarterbacks either coming or going. That role was to be filled by senior Nathan Williams, but a knee injury ended his season after game one and no one stepped up to suitably fill his "Leo" role.
"I think losing Nate Williams probably hurt us schematically as much as anybody," Heacock said late in the season. "We had high hopes for him to be the opposite side of Johnny Simon and felt like we'd have two guys that could get off the edge and could give us some pretty good pass rush. Nate always gave us that opportunity to drop somebody in the coverage and did a good job of that."
Simon tried to fill in for Williams at the Leo spot and acquitted himself well, but it wasn't a natural fit and took Simon away from the more inside roles he had filled for his first two seasons in scarlet and gray.
That shouldn't be a problem, though, in 2012. Ohio State spotlighted the rush end as a key place to hit in the recruiting cycle and hit it big, bringing in two of the top three defensive ends in the country in Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington along with four-star recruit Se'Von Pittman.
"According to the coaches who were on the previous staff, the defensive line was very, was critical this year; in particular, the defensive end," new head coach Urban Meyer said. "And to think we signed three kids that are in the top 100 and three guys that we identified as guys that we had to have … I call them the prize of the recruiting class. They are the guys that you can take anywhere in the country at any time."
Meyer certainly knows about how easy dominating defensive ends can make a coach's job – and, of course, he delivered that message to Ohio State on the way to the 2006 national title. Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss harassed OSU quarterback Troy Smith all night long in the BCS National Championship Game, as Florida racked up five sacks in a 41-14 domination of the Buckeyes.
While that's a painful memory for Ohio State fans, the thought that Ohio State might have its own book-ending duos like that in the near future has to be exciting. Even Meyer sees some similarities from 2006 to his current crop of pass rushers.
"(Spence) is probably more like Moss," Meyer said. "A slender, high-cut athlete. Harvey was more of an Adolphus Washington type – strong, bull-rusher type player."
Assistant coach Luke Fickell, who will be charged with coordinating a defense with that new influx of talent in 2012, sees lots of possibilities in the incoming ends.
"They're all different in their own right," Fickell said. "Noah Spence is probably little bit more of a linebacker size, 230, 240 pounds, probably a guy that is a true speed guy. Then you go from there. Adolphus Washington, he's a guy that plays basketball probably nine months out of the year and only football for a few months. He's a 250-pound guy right now. Who knows what he'll look like in a year or two. I think he could be a guy that could play either side as an end.
"Then Se'Von Pittman is a guy who is a 225-pound guy, a junior in high school that looked like an outside backer type of guy, now is 265-pound guy that is continuing to grow. Where his growth potential is I have no idea."
What is also known is those three guys can get to the quarterback. Washington amassed 23½ sacks as a senior at Cincinnati Taft while Pittman had eight this past season at Canton McKinley, per Ohio State's signing day release. Spence, who prepped at Harrisburg (Pa.) Bishop McDevitt, had 35½ sacks in his last two seasons of high school.
As previously established, they'll step into an area that needs improvement in 2012.
"I think that's why these kids wanted to come, we're down in sacks," Meyer said. "You want to recruit guys that put their tails up in the air and go. Simon and Nate Williams are going to be gone. They're seniors. We have them one more year. It's a perfect time to come in for a defensive end."
Their additions – along with the return of Williams – should have a domino effect on the rest of the team. Williams, who continues to rehab a knee injury but is progressing nicely according to team sources, led the team with 4½ sacks in 2010, while Simon will be free to return to his original offset tackle spot. That will also mean less reason to blitz, leaving the Buckeyes more able to cover passing plays.
"You don't want to have to blitz every time you want pressure," Meyer said. "Coach Fickell and I talked. To get pressure, you don't want to have to bring five every time."