That thought, however, was predicated on the depth of the defensive line allowing for a consistent rotation of players, keeping the best of the bunch like sophomore end Joey Bosa and senior tackle Mike Bennett fresh for the end of games. That hasn’t been the case through eight contests this season.
"My goal is to have a group of nine to 10 guys we can shuffle in and out in no particular order,” Larry Johnson said at media day Aug. 10. “We have the talent to be able to do that, we just have to coach it up."
The Buckeyes are still waiting for that rotation to emerge consistently. Granted, some of that has been outside of Ohio State’s control as Noah Spence, a second-team All-Big Ten performer at defensive end last year, is out for the season after failing a second test for a banned substance. Even accounting for the loss of the standout junior, however, the rotation along the defensive line has been thin.
Nine guys played along the line against Michigan State, but the starters received the vast majority of the snaps, especially Bennett and Bosa who were rarely on the sideline when the defense was on the field. Bennett called for more substitutions after that win.
“We just need to have more of a rotation in the game,” Bennett said after the Michigan State win. “Guys don’t need to be playing 80 plays. When you get into really big games like against Michigan State sometimes coaches lose faith in guys that they are ready to put in. We need to make sure we practice hard every day so that the coaches have faith in them to put them in the game so that going into the fourth quarter the starters aren’t blown out, but (co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash) is a lot more knowledgeable on this than me.”
The rotation increased against Minnesota as Steve Miller, Bennett, Bosa and Adolphus Washington started while Jalyn Holmes, Rashad Frazier, Donovan Munger, Tyquan Lewis, Chris Carter and Tommy Schutt all saw time along the line in relief.
Still, it’s clear that the coaching staff does not trust the reserves anywhere near as much as they do the starters, and head coach Urban Meyer said the biggest concern is depth along the interior.
“Schutt is close,” Meyer said of the backup defensive tackle Monday. “He had a good week of practice. I like Tom Schutt, disappointed in him. I thought when we recruited him, he'd be a guy that would roll in there, and we're meeting every week now. He's asking what he can do better, and he had his best week of practice, so he's a good guy that comes from good people and we want to get him on the field, but he's got to play better. That's an area that's not where we need to be right now.”
Johnson has acknowledged throughout the season that taking the starters out is a difficult thing to do and he reiterated that point Monday. Substituting just to substitute is not something the defensive line coach is willing to do, he said, but rather that those substitutions must be earned.
“You’re playing games that you’ve got to be careful when you substitute,” Johnson said. “We’ve four guys, or five or six guys that are really playing well. They feel good so you don’t want to just take them out.
While Johnson added that he was happy with the development of the backups, that continued reluctance to pull the units stars leads to exhaustion at game’s end. The game with the Nittany Lions went into two overtimes and Bosa admitted that he wasn’t thrilled about the extra periods, saying he was “dead tired” at the end of regulation.
The unit has been productive, especially Bosa who is fourth nationally in sacks and seventh in tackles for loss with 11.5 and 17, respectively. Ohio State is 15th in the country in TFL per fame and 18th in sacks per contest.
Still, in Meyer’s press conference Nov. 10 following the win over the Spartans he expressed his aggravation with the number of players – or lack thereof – along the line.
“We're still looking for that rotation at defensive line, I'm upset about that, that we can't get that done,” the coach said. “And so there's going to be a lot of pressure on guys this week to get that done.”
If the head coach’s frustrations are to be alleviated that means more consistent contributions from players like Holmes, Munger and Mike Hill.
“Talking about guys that haven’t played, Donovan Munger didn’t play last year, Jayln and Rashad Frazier are playing,” Johnson said. “The development is going well. Having the opportunity these guys are ready to go.”
The rotation did extend to 10 players against the Gophers, but no reserve recorded a tackle in Minnesota. Still, the ability to play more guys will help to keep the starters fresh for the fourth quarter.
Washington was not surprised to see the increased rotation against the Gophers, as he said prior to the Minnesota game that the backups were ready for more time.
“This week I think we’ll see that a lot more with guys rotating in because coach Johnson and coach Meyer have seen that plan of just five or six people is not going to work and we were tired,” Washington said. “When the fourth quarter came we were pretty tired, so I think this week you’ll see a better rotation.
“I’m not going to say they haven’t developed, I think the coaches just don’t have the confidence to quite throw them in the game during a big game like (Michigan State).”
For the Buckeyes to have the defensive line they envisioned prior to the season coaches will have to be able to get production out of their second-unit lineman, trusting them to have an impact no matter the quality of the opponent.
Washington said he thought the unit has the depth necessary to extend the rotation. If they do, the Buckeyes will be one step closer to having the dominant D-line they thought would propel them to new defensive heights this season.