With Seniors Gone, Young DL Enter Spotlight

A trio of five-star freshmen stood out as talented youngsters on the Ohio State defensive line in 2012. But with four starters leaving the squad after the season, Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington will be counted on for much more as sophomores.

The learning curve was sharp for the freshman defensive linemen that stepped onto the field for the Ohio State football team in 2012, but it's fair to say Noah Spence, Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington made the leap.

Take, for example, Spence's answer when the five-star prospect from Harrisburg, Pa., was asked when he first realized he was at the high Division I level.

"I mean, that happened like the first day of practice when we started hitting," Spence said. "I was like, these dudes are nothing like high school."

But by the time the opening game rolled around, all three players were in the lineup and playing well, and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said he wouldn't be treating the three five-star players like freshmen for the rest of the campaign.

After the second game, even a player as well-regarded as senior leader Johnny Simon was excited about the prospects of the trio.

"They showed that they're game ready throughout the week in practice, so we have faith in them," Simon said. "I've seen them every week in practice and how they're preparing for games. We definitely have full faith in them and they deserve to be out there."

The three showed that throughout the length of the season. Spence finished the year with 12 tackles and a sack in 11 games, while Washington added nine tackles, three sacks, a huge forced fumble vs. Michigan and a blocked kick. Schutt had only four tackles and a quarterback hurry but was a key part of the defensive line rotation.

All were trusted to see playing time in late-game situations and on third downs throughout the year thanks to their athletic talents and ability to get to the quarterback. Now, with seniors Simon, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams graduating and junior Johnathan Hankins leaving early for the NFL, the three will be relied on again to have a quick learning curve going into 2013.

They, along with elder players like Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, will be tasked with becoming either starters or leaders on the line for a team that expects to contend for a national championship.

Those players will as a result be asked to improve upon what they did in 2012, but they got off to a good start after coming in along with four-star end Se'Von Pittman, who battled injuries and redshirted.

"I'm not even going to lie, I didn't think I would play this much at all as a freshman," Washington said. "But Coach Meyer and (defensive line coach Mike) Vrabel have faith in us to go out there. We just go out there and do what we're supposed to do."

Washington might have made the biggest impact simply because of what he did in the Michigan game. Taking part in his first drive ever in The Game, Washington went around All-America left tackle Taylor Lewan and stripped U-M quarterback Devin Gardner. Zach Boren pounced on the loose ball to end a Michigan scoring chance.

"Our coaches made a big emphasis that he was their best offensive lineman," Washington said. "When my coaches brag on a player, it makes me want to go after him even more, so I just went out there and used some fundamentals, stuff that we've been working on in practice, and it worked."

The big 6-3, 289-pounder who can work both inside and outside also had sacks vs. Miami (Ohio) and Illinois while blocking an extra point in the UCF game.

Spence had a 20-yard sack vs. the RedHawks as well, prompting the early notice for the two youngsters, while making five tackles in the Indiana game. He saw playing time become steady throughout the season as the Buckeyes went to a more aggressive scheme that allowed him freedom to get to the quarterback in passing situations and as players were banged up throughout the year.

"I knew it would be a learning experience," the 6-3, 240-pound edge rusher said. "I've been trying my best to get better every day. (I started cutting loose) when I finally started learning my plays. Once you learn that, you can be yourself on the field and everything like that."

While both Washington and Spence lined up at end at times, Schutt (6-2, 295) is a straight tackle. Playing in the middle to spell Hankins, Goebel and others, Schutt was part of the rotation used to slow down opposing teams in third-down situations.

There will be a lot of talent and depth but not much experience as the Buckeyes look to rebuild the defensive line in 2013. Any on-field time is crucial, and with that in mind, Spence, Washington and Schutt will be keys to the team.

Coming off a 12-0 campaign, those players are ready.

"Our freshmen are undefeated as Buckeyes, and we're trying to keep it rolling," Washington said.

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