Spring Brings Confidence To Defensive Line

One of the biggest questions facing the Ohio State football team surrounded its defensive line. Actually, make that several questions as the line entered the spring needing to replace four starters. But after a solid spring, position coach Mike Vrabel felt his group was deserving of a passing grade.

Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel is a former NFL All-Pro who won three Super Bowl titles with the New England Patriots. It would be fair to say that the former OSU defensive lineman has high standards, which should add even more weight to the post-spring game he gave his players.

"I would grade us probably a B to a B-plus," Vrabel said. "I think we did some good things. There are some things we have to improve on – consistently playing hard, consistently playing with a demeanor that's going to all us to be a really good group, a top-five D-line in the country."

That being said, it was a successful spring for the defensive linemen. The unit entered the spring as one of the biggest question marks facing the Buckeyes after the departures of seniors Garrett Goebel, John Simon and Nathan Williams and junior Johnathan Hankins, who left OSU early for the NFL draft. With several key positions open, it gave Vrabel an opportunity to take a more hands-on approach.

Vrabel said the veteran group he had last season made it so he "didn't ah veto do a whole bunch." This spring, however, it was about building up the next group of players that will start in the trenches Aug. 31 when Ohio State opens the 2013 season against Buffalo.

Several players stood tall for Vrabel and the D-line during the spring, perhaps none more notably than sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington. The pair combined for seven of the 11 total sacks during Scarlet's 31-14 victory over Gray in the spring game last week. More impressive than that afternoon's performance was what led to it, according to Vrabel.

"I don't think they're putting a whole lot of stock in that spring game. I think some of those plays came late," Vrabel said. "I would put stock in those scrimmages."

The scrimmages were the offense vs. defense battles that Ohio State held several Saturdays during the spring season. The defensive line treated those spring Saturdays like fall Saturdays.

"We approached every Saturday scrimmage in the defensive line room as it was a game for us," Vrabel said. "We left them on Friday with a game plan, with some notes on some things they could mentally prepare themselves for. We started to try to get those guys into a routine for playing football games on Saturday in the fall.

"That's something they didn't do last year, so we tried to approach it that way – tomorrow morning is a game. Get some rest, study your game plan, wake up with a mindset that you're going to go win a football game today. We did that. For three Saturdays, we did that as a group. I thought we did a nice job of that."

While Spence and Washington might have grabbed the most headlines, they were far from the only defensive linemen to find success during the spring. Vrabel listed interior defensive linemen Joel Hale and Michael Bennett as another sophomore pair that performed well.

Neither Hale nor Bennett has made a huge impact on the field for the Buckeyes during their careers but took more of a leadership role this spring. Hale specifically was called the group's leader "in the weight room, in the meeting room and on the field."

"We saw things from Joel Hale we hadn't seen last year, as far as his being able to play with some body lean, playing with some extension on blockers," Vrabel said.

Hale told reporters that he is not trying to replace Simon but be the best leader he can be to try to make the defensive line as strong as possible.

"I don't feel necessarily any pressure on being a leader," Hale said. "We're not here to replace them. We're not here to be John Simon and Johnathan Hankins. We're here to fill the spots and make Ohio State the best team we can be."

Bennett was a player many predicted would make a mark during the 2012 season but injuries derailed a possible breakout season for the Centerville, Ohio, product. This spring, he not only took more a vocal role on the defensive line but – more importantly – remained on the field.

"Michael had a good spring," Vrabel said. "It was consistent. He was there every day. He didn't miss any time with bumps and bruises, which is something he's done in the past. He hasn't been able to string a whole bunch of practices together. Michael did that. He was a leader for us."

Others players Vrabel made note to mention were Purdue transfer Rashad Frazier, who Vrabel said "helped himself and improved," and Chris Carter. Carter, a sophomore, started to show positive signs near the end of spring.

"Chris Carter, the last two weeks, looked like a nose guard," Vrabel said. "He looked like a legitimate force inside, somebody we're going to have to continue to coach and continue to push to get his full potential because there's not a lot of guys his size that can do what he does physically."

Finally, Vrabel mentioned Tommy Schutt as a player that was limited because of injuries.

"(He) was going to be a guy that was going to help us in the rotation and just from an injury standpoint wasn't able to be out there a majority of the time," Vrabel said.

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