OSU D-Line Hoping To Gain From '07 Trials

The buzzword this spring for the Ohio State defensive line is experience, but defensive coordinator Jim Heacock offered a caveat when he met with the media at the Woody Hayes Athletics Center on Tuesday night.

Before anyone tries to assume a more veteran front will automatically translate into a more productive one, consider this statement from Heacock, who doubles as the line coach.

"Experience is only good if it makes you better."

And so the Buckeye defensive linemen have gone to work this spring to make sure their 2007 trial by fire will pay off in 2008.

Heacock entered last season with just two veterans up front with appreciable experience: junior ends Vernon Gholston and Lawrence Wilson.

While Gholston went on to break the school record for sacks, Wilson broke his leg in the opener and missed the rest of the season.

That made the group even greener, and although the defense as a whole went on to post another stellar statistical season, there were times the front's play was lacking, particularly in terms of rushing the passer.

While the Buckeyes as a team produced five more sacks in 2007 (43) than in 2006, the defensive line accounted for 6.5 fewer in that total (22.5 as opposed to 29).

This spring the goal is to make sure there is no repeat of that inconsistency, and experience could be key.

"This is a more mature group," Heacock said. "You can sense that in the meetings."

That should not come as a surprise considering all four tackles – senior Nader Abdallah, juniors Todd Denlinger and Doug Worthington and sophomore Dexter Larimore – are back and in action after seeing their first appreciable playing time last season.

Both Heacock and Denlinger agreed that experience "slows the game down" for a defensive lineman.

In the trenches, action unfolds quickly, making initial reactions vital. An excess of repetitions can help develop a player's instincts, leaving him better equipped to deal with whatever could come at along in the heat of the moment.

Denlinger said technique suffered among the group last year, a symptom of youth.

"Last year we were really raw," he said.

He said the defensive linemen could all stand to improve how they used their hands, feet and even eyes on the field.

"It's really nice to have experience, to be able to come in as veterans," Denlinger said of this year. "It is exciting to know we have four great guys. We're a tight unit."

Heacock declined to name a pair of starters from the group.

"We have four good guys who all have good talent. Is it great talent? We'll have to wait and see."

"They are competing now and I really see improvement."

Outside, production was easier to measure last season.

Aside from Gholston's 14 sacks, Cameron Heyward stepped in as a freshman and contributed 10 tackles for loss, including 2.5 sacks.

Gholston opted for early entry into the NFL draft, but Heyward returns, as does Wilson, who got rave reviews from both Heacock and Denlinger.

"Lawrence Wilson is really coming on," Heacock said.

"He is looking great, moving well. He really fought hard to get back," Denlinger added. "He's a gamer. He brings energy. He's an exciting guy to watch."

Wilson himself was calm and collected when fielding questions from the media. He surprised himself with how smoothly he has come back so far.

"I thought I would be hesitant when I came back, but I got right to it," he said.

Spelling the top two ends are two players new to the defensive line this year: sophomores Thaddeus Gibson and Mark Johnson.

While Heyward and Wilson go 287 and 274, respectively, Gibson and Johnson are 240 and 250. The latter duo brings a change of pace, particularly from a pass-rushing standpoint.

Gibson, in particular, has caught the eye of Heacock so far, who said the Euclid, Ohio, native had a great offseason.

To indicate the importance of the front four in Ohio State's defensive scheme, Heacock called to mind a pair of major football championship game upsets: the 2003 Fiesta Bowl and the 2008 Super Bowl.

In both contests, dominant performances by defensive front fours – for Ohio State in the former contest and the New York Giants in the latter – helped propel underdogs to surprising victories.

Heacock would like to be able to count on his more mature group to do the same in 2008.

"To be successful, you have to get better pressure on the quarterback," he said before declaring his belief that a defense is at its best when getting four-man pressure.

Though acknowledging the defensive line could have had a better year, Denlinger said the group does not feel extra pressure to step up this season.

Heacock wants more production and more pushing of the pocket, and he sees a group ready to step up to the challenge.

"I think they know they can do better," he said.

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