That challenge might have come when Urban Meyer hosted his National Signing Day radio show Feb. 4. When asked if the incoming recruits would have a chance to get early time on the interior of OSU’s line, the head coach had a quick answer.
“I made this point many, many times – the disappointment of this entire program right now is the backup defensive line,” Meyer said. “It’s not going to be pleasant for the next six weeks. It’s time to go. You have to play, you have to hold up your end of the bargain … They’re good kids, but they have to go.”
That’s exactly the challenge such reserves as Donovan Munger expected as they headed into a critical offseason.
“It’ll be a challenge for us but we’re up for it,” Munger said. “The hard work we’ve done with Coach Johnson being with us, we still have a few older guys to help lead us. I feel like we’ll be pretty good.”
They have little choice whether to accept such a challenge as the defensive line will be hurt by departures this offseason. Tackle Michael Bennett, a potential first-round NFL draft pick and a major leader at the spot in 2014, has graduated, as have Steve Miller and Rashad Frazier, the two players who split time opposite Joey Bosa.
Bosa returns as a unanimous All-American for what everyone expects will be a final season before entering the NFL draft, and the Buckeyes also have senior Adolphus Washington, who can play either tackle spot. But the other two starter spots must be filled and the Buckeyes will likely want more depth as line coach Larry Johnson didn’t get a chance to use a rotation as much as he probably would have liked.
He said going into the title game with Oregon that he felt comfortable rotating up to eight players in – as he had in the team’s Big Ten title game win vs. Wisconsin – but the showing vs. the Badgers was few and far between in 2014. After starting the year saying he was a big believer in a rotation, Johnson rode such players as Bennett and Bosa late in the year.
That was both because of the effectiveness and age of such players, the former Penn State coach said, but he expects things to be different going forward.
“It’s hard to take those guys out of the game,” Johnson said. “Mike is a senior, he deserves to play. Donovan has played 100, 150 plays during the course of a season, which is not bad for a redshirt (freshman), but next season that number is going to be higher.”
Munger, senior Tommy Schutt and sophomore Michael Hill will be among those counted on in the middle, and Schutt (a five-star player coming out of high school) and Hill (a four-star prospect from South Carolina whom many compared to an SEC player in the recruiting process) will be counted on to make major progress.
“I do believe that I can become a starter next year on the defensive line,” Hill said. “I just have to go hard this offseason and take everything serious, do extra work to get my place.”
Hill admitted the lack of playing time in his second season – especially after he saw the field early as a true freshman before an injury quickly ended his campaign – was tough to handle mentally but added, “next year will be a big year for me – that’s what I believe.”
Leading the way in production in the group was Schutt, who had 10 tackles and a TFL in 12 games. Munger had five tackles and a TFL in 10 games while Hill played in four games, making a sack among his two tackles. Add in Tracy Sprinkle as well as Joel Hale, who will move back to defensive tackle after spending 2014 as an offensive lineman, as he returns from a medical redshirt and the Buckeyes should have depth.
Moving out wide, the Buckeyes will definitely have options, including sophomores Tyquan Lewis (nine tackles, 2.5 TFL in 2014) and Jalyn Holmes (11 tackles in nine games) in the mix. A darkhorse candidate for major playing time is redshirt freshman Sam Hubbard, who could have played late in the year were it not for his redshirt, Meyer said.
There’s also depth in the form of redshirt freshmen Darius Slade and Dylan Thompson, while the incoming crew of Joshua Alabi, DaVon Hamilton, Robert Landers, early enrollee Jashon Cornell and Dre’Mont Jones could see early playing time.
All things considered, Johnson doesn’t seem to worry. The game-ready depth might not have been quite what was expected in 2014, but it didn’t have to be. The challenge has been laid, and the proof will be in the pudding going forward.
“I tell you what, I’m really pleased with their progress,” Johnson said of his young charges. “They keep getting in there. It’s a growing process with defensive line guys.”