Vrabel Confident He Can Replace Linemen

One of the key themes for the Ohio State football team as it tries to compete for the 2013 national championship will how it replaces the four departed starters on the defensive line. There's a long way to go but DL coach Mike Vrabel thinks at least four guys will step up among his talented group.

The gantlet was laid down by head coach Urban Meyer on the first day of spring practice two weeks ago.

"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," the Ohio State head man said. "If not, we won't. It's pretty simple."

Considering the Buckeyes must replace four starting defensive linemen – seniors John Simon, Garrett Goebel and Nathan Williams as well as NFL-draft-bound junior Johnathan Hankins – for the first time since 1985, it's a fair point.

Those four players combined for 182 tackles, 26 tackles for loss and 13 sacks, while the returning players on the line combined for 45 tackles, 6½ TFL and six sacks.

It's going to be a tall task to replace all of that production, but the man tasked with doing so – second-year defensive line coach Mike Vrabel – has an idea of how to attack the problem.

"We just try to have fun," Vrabel said. "We try to put the stuff in, we try to install, we try to go out and compete. We go against a really good offensive line and that makes us better, and I feel if we can compete with them and push ourselves against them, it's going to make us really good."

Vrabel has some talent and some experience to work with. Williams and Simon both missed starts because of injury a season ago, so it's not like starting a game will be a unique experience for junior tackle Michael Bennett (two starts last year), junior end J.T. Moore (two), junior end Steve Miller (one) and sophomore tackle Tommy Schutt (one).

On the other hand, there simply wasn't much production to be had from that group a season ago. Vrabel said the Buckeyes got by with 4½ or five defensive linemen for most of last year, as Hankins, Goebel, Williams and Simon each made at least 40 tackles on the campaign. Next up, though, was Noah Spence, who made 12 stops in his freshman campaign.

Spence has moved into the top unit this fall, where he appears to be working with fellow ends Adolphus Washington (three sacks last year) and Moore. In the middle, tackles Bennett, Schutt and junior Joel Hale are in the mix. Add in Miller, nose tackle Chris Carter, walk-on Rashad Frazier, linebacker turned end Jamal Marcus and true freshmen Tracy Sprinkle and Tyquan Lewis and there are plenty of faces in the mix.

With that much talent on hand, Vrabel isn't worried he'll be able to find impact players among the group.

"I'm always confident at Ohio State you're going to find four defensive linemen that are going to be able to go out there and play," Vrabel said. "I'm pretty confident in that."

Vrabel had plenty of praise for just about every candidate in the mix. Of the three sophomores who came in with five-star rankings a season ago, Spence "has a lot of God-given athletic ability," while Schutt is "a really good technician" and Washington "has great length … and is a great athlete."

Bennett and Hale will also be key parts of the rotation. A lingering groin injury kept Bennett from a starting job last year and limited him to 11 tackles, but Vrabel noted, "We need Michael Bennett." Hale is also maturing into a leader, as Vrabel said, "He's a veteran for us, and that shows how young we are. Joel keeps everybody together and keeps them on the right path."

The OSU all-time career leader in sacks and tackles for loss also praised Miller's heart and desire along with Marcus' explosiveness, the skill that pushed the team to move him to the line from linebacker, while saying he's been happy with what he's seen from Lewis and Sprinkle.

As a result, it seems that just about every player in the mix still has a chance to earn playing time, and Spence expects to see the Buckeyes use their depth in 2013.

"They're definitely going to play a lot of people – probably about eight," Spence said. "We're trying to get a good eight, so there's going to be a rotation. We're just trying to get to that rotation, and I mean, it's fun. I like to be here every day with our whole D-line. It's just like a family."

Spots are to be had and there's a buzz about the defensive line room, making Vrabel's job a fun one when he comes to work every day.

"We try to certainly motivate them in a lot of different ways and provide some motivation every day, but I would think a starting job at Ohio State for what is supposed to be the Silver Bullet defense would be enough motivation," Vrabel said.

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