Ohio State lost nine players with eligibility remaining to the NFL draft, but the hardest Buckeyes to replace might be among those who had no choice but to move on from college football.
In addition to those nine departures, the Buckeyes honored 18 seniors ahead of the Michigan State game Nov. 21, including the team’s top three defensive tackles in terms of production. Those three players – Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale – combined for 23 starts out of a total of 26 at defensive tackle during the 2015 season. Washington, an All-American as a senior, would have made it 24 if he hadn’t missed the Fiesta Bowl through suspension, and Schutt missed the game as well with a broken foot.
The senior trio combined for 86 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks while the rest of the Buckeyes’ defensive tackles to see the field – Michael Hill, Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle – totaled just 16 tackles and half a tackle for loss. Munger, who could start at 3-technique next season, didn’t find his name on the Buckeyes’ final season statistics at all.
With three veterans out the door, defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said the interior defensive line is one of the most difficult spots to replace, especially when relying on younger players.
“To have guys that can walk in the door at 18, 19 years old to be physically ready to do some of that stuff is difficult,” Fickell said. “I think that I like what we’ve got.
“That’s the most difficult spot. It is kind of like an offensive lineman, those guys are talented enough, smart enough, they understand what they are doing, but the true physicality of the game and taking that next step is the most difficult thing.”
Hill, who just finished his sophomore season, is likely to get the first crack at stepping into the full-time lineup next season after starting the Fiesta Bowl and the regular-season finale against Michigan. He finished the year with 12 total tackles and half a tackle for loss, and he told BSB during Fiesta Bowl media day that he’ll be sticking to nose tackle next year.
While there’s no guarantee, Hill likely has that starting spot locked up. So with his name more or less penciled in, he said he has some personal goals for the spring.
“I want to cut down weight and get more slim, get more fit, so I can be more athletic next year,” he said.
In addition to his conditioning, Hill said he’s aiming to become a vocal leader.
“It will be a major leap for me,” he said. “I’ve just got to be more of a leader – lead by example, more of a vocal leader. Like, get the young guys better. Like when we’re doing workouts and I see them slacking off or something, just get on them and make sure everyone is doing their job.”
Munger, another player coming off his sophomore season, could be a starter alongside Hill next year. Munger didn’t start the Fiesta Bowl because the Buckeyes opened the game with three defensive ends on the field, but he saw more extended action at 3-technique than he had all season.
Regardless of whether he does, in fact, earn that starting spot, Munger said he’s aiming to become a leader as well, just in a different way than his classmate.
“Leader by example, not just talking all the time, really,” Munger said. “Just showing the younger guys, this younger class, they’re really good. I can’t wait to see them and the things they can do this next year, so I’m very excited.”
Beyond Hill and Munger, Sprinkle, who is also heading into his junior season, will be the only Ohio State defensive tackle with significant game experience next season. He finished the year with four total tackles and got into the Fiesta Bowl early when the Buckeyes went with three down linemen. Outside of that sophomore trio, Ohio State is set to have Dre’Mont Jones, Dylan Thompson, Davon Hamilton, Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell and Joshua Alabi return at defensive tackle in addition to one or two new recruits – including Malik Barrow – who could play inside.
Among the players who were on the 2015 roster, Landers earned the widest praise from his teammates, and he even broke into the two deep as a true freshman, though he never got into a game.
“He’s a tough kid and he’s a little guy but he’s explosive and quick and very disruptive,” Schutt said of Landers. “He’s definitely a guy that’s going to be fun to watch the next couple years.”
Hill agreed that Landers has proved himself at nose guard and added that Hamilton emerged during the team’s bowl practices. Munger noted that Thompson has made great strides coming back from injury. Fickell said Jones suffered an injury this year on his way to a redshirt season, but he could be in the mix next year as well.
Fickell, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and the newest member of Ohio State’s defensive staff, Greg Schiano, will have all of spring practice and fall camp to fill out their defensive depth chart, with much of the focus sure to be on the big guys inside.
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