A championship D-Line?

Usually, the best is saved for last. However, we are beginning our series of features with the strength of the 2002 Buckeyes - the defensive line.<br>

While many Ohio State fans will debate on how good (or bad) this year's team will be, there aren't many questions regarding the D-Line.

Well, one does come to mind: Is it among the best units in the Big Ten, or the entire nation?

Defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio doesn't like getting into comparisons, but he did have an interesting take on his line.

"As far as the strength of our defense, I would agree that it's up front," Dantonio said. "We have six defensive linemen who can play championship football. I mean, they've proved to me that they can."

Championship football? And this coming from a guy who normally throws compliments around like potholes?

But Dantonio wasn't the only OSU coach to gush about the line.

"I'm not sure if it's the best position on the team, we've got some pretty good wide receivers and running backs, but I'm very excited about this group," defensive line coach Jim Heacock said. "They've had a great spring. We've got six guys with experience that have proven they can play at a high level."

Heacock said it's more than what they do on the field that makes the defensive line stand out.

"These guys have a great work ethic - they know what they need to do on and off the field. Their practice habits are great. They play hard out there and they also watch a lot of film.

"I think we've got a chance... if we stay healthy and they keep working like this, to be really good up front this year," Heacock said.

* So far this spring, the most talked about player on the team, let alone the D-Line, has been rush end Will Smith (6-4, 255, Jr.). Check out head coach Jim Tressel's take on Smith -one of the best quotes of spring ball thus far.

"Will Smith is a guy that... whew, let me tell you, he's a tough one to handle up there," Tressel said.

Here's a rundown of Smith's young career...

Last year as a sophomore, he started all 12 games, led the Buckeyes in sacks with four and was second on the team with nine tackles-for-loss (Mike Doss led with 10). 

He was OSU's defensive freshman of the year in 2000 when he played in all 12 games, as a true frosh, and collected three sacks.

As a senior at Proctor High School (Utica, NY), Smith had 20 sacks, was a second-team All-American pick by USA Today and was widely regarded as the top defensive lineman in the state.

Heacock gave us a breakdown of Smith's game and why he might be on the verge of an All-Big Ten season.

"Will is having a great spring. He's probably playing a little more confidently - coming off the ball and using his speed better than he ever has. He's playing fast. He's always had speed, but he hasn't really played that fast. This spring, he's really cut-loose and played hard and played with a lot of confidence. He gives us that good edge guy who will hopefully get a lot of pressure on the quarterback," Heacock said.

While Heacock wanted to focus on Smith's improved speed (4.6 in the 40), Dantonio just wanted to talk about his added strength and size.

"Will Smith's had a very impressive spring - he's bigger and stronger," Dantonio said.

Keep in mind that Smith weighed just 230 pounds as a freshman. He is now "close to 260" according to Dantonio.

By the way, Smith wants to be an FBI agent after he graduates. 

* The versatile Kenny Peterson (6-4, 280, Sr.) is another player who Buckeye fans and coaches are counting on for a big year.

Peterson played the majority of his first three seasons at end, but got a taste of tackle last year and will rotate between the two positions this fall.

"The nice thing about Kenny is that he give us some flexibility. He can play end, but he can also move down inside. He's added 15 pounds and is up to 280 now. We're comfortable with him on the edge or inside," Heacock said.

Any preference as to where he plays?

"When he goes inside, he gives us a little bit better of a pass rush with his quickness. Getting him matched up with those inside people seems to give us an advantage. But we like having the flexibility to move him around a little bit," Heacock said.

Dantonio echoed those comments.

"That's the great thing about Kenny Peterson - he's effective at both positions," Dantonio said.

* Nose guard Tim Anderson (6-3, 300, Jr.) is a blue-collar guy that seemed to get better with each passing game last year.

Anderson started all 12 games and tied for second on the team in sacks with three (along with Peterson and Doss). As a redshirt freshman in 2000, Anderson played in seven games and logged just a total of 18 minutes.

This spring, the Buckeye coaches have gushed as much or more about Anderson as they have about Smith.

"Tim really came on at the end of the year last year and he's continued to play well this spring," Heacock said. "He's just a real physical, real dominant type of player. Tim's a tough kid that likes to play football and gives us a real good stop-man in the middle. He's up around 300 pounds right now," Heacock said.

"Tim Anderson is steady as a rock and does everything exactly right. He brings us great toughness and leadership," Dantonio said.

* Returning starter Darrion Scott (6-3, 265, Jr.) is currently rehabbing from a shoulder injury, but when healthy he gives the Buckeyes another versatile guy who can play end or tackle.

Scott, who came to OSU as a linebacker, was sixth on the team with 49 tackles last year. Slowly, his shoulder is getting better.

"It's coming along pretty good, it's about 60 percent right now," Scott said. "I've gotten a lot of strength back, but I've still got a long way to go to get it back to where I want it to be."

And when he does get back, where does Scott want to play on the crowded line?

"I just want to play. I like both. Playing inside is a lot of fun, it might be a little easier for me because I'm fast and it's easier to beat a guard with them being a lot slower than me... I like playing defensive tackle probably more, but I'm more in the mold of an end with the size and the shape and the mold of my body," Scott, a pre-med major, said.

* Tackle David Thompson (6-5, 290, Sr.) dealt with academic difficulties early in his career, but got all of that straightened out before last season.

Thompson graduated high school along with former Ohio State basketball player Boban Savovic (Eastside NJ, '98) and is a player who really came on this spring according to the coaching staff.

"David's having a great spring. David's always been a good player, the problems with eligibility hurt him with not getting game experience, but he's had a great spring," Heacock said. "I really like David a lot. He's been a good leader, he's a senior, it's his last year and I think he's going to be a good player for us," he added.

"David Thompson's had an excellent spring. He's going to be a factor in there," Dantonio said.

* Simon Fraser (6-5, 250, So.) was included in Dantonio's "championship six" linemen, so you know how he feels about him. Like Scott, Fraser will miss the spring game (partially torn knee tendon), but should be fine by fall camp. Fraser got his feet wet as a true freshmen last year with three tackles-for-loss and one sack and was really having a good spring until the injury. He is a player who racked up 30 sacks for Upper Arlington's state title team in 2000 and is sure to see plenty of minutes this fall as long as the knee injury isn't more serious than we think.

* Right now, the seventh guy on the line is tackle Marcus Green (6-3, 325, Fr.). Green led his high school team (Louisville Male) to the Kentucky big-school championship as a senior and was the top rated defensive lineman in the state. He redshirted last year, but Heacock is expecting him to crack the two-deep this year.

"He's made a lot of progress the last two weeks of the spring. He's starting to feel at home in there, I think he's going to give us some help in there. Marcus is a physical kid who stays low and plays hard and I think he'll make the two-deep if he keeps working and has a great offseason," Heacock said.

Dantonio also gave the young lineman some compliments.

"Marcus Green is a guy that's coming on, he's having a good spring, so there's really seven guys when you say Marcus who can go in there and play and get the job done," Dantonio said.

* And coming in the fall? How about the best group of Buckeye D-Line recruits in recent memory? Not sure how it's going to happen, but tackle Quinn Pitcock is going to get on the field somehow. So will Mike Kudla. That makes nine and Joel Penton shouldn't be counted out either.

The bottom line is that Heacock might be the most fortunate position coach in the land. But you won't hear him complaining about it.

"Oh no, not at all," he said with a laugh. "But as excited as I am about what this group could accomplish on the field, what I really like about all of them is the type of young men that they are. They are a wonderful group to work with."

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