The Ohio State defensive line coach and defensive coordinator spent the 2007 season with a young group along the line, starting a number of underclassmen on a team that made it to the national championship game.
"We were playing with a bunch of kids," he said. "They were all young."
Now, the kids are grown up. The Buckeyes go into the 2009 campaign with four seniors in Todd Denlinger, Robert Rose, Doug Worthington and Lawrence Wilson hopefully free of injury and ready to go by the time September comes around. Behind that quartet are juniors Dexter Larimore, Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward.
Those seven players combined for 146 tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks last season, leaving plenty of optimism that the Ohio State defensive line can be the anchor on a defense that is reloading after the loss of three-year stalwarts James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman at linebacker and Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington at cornerback.
Heacock, who took over as OSU's line coach in 1996, wouldn't have it any other way.
"I coach the defensive line so I'm a little partial, but yeah, I think your front four, that's where it starts," he said. "If you're not tough up front, you're in for a long year. You could have the greatest linebackers and secondary, but if you can't get pressure on the quarterback and disrupt the quarterback a little bit, you're not going to be very good."
With those older players, plus experienced sophomore Nathan Williams and young guns Keith Wells, Solomon Thomas, Garrett Goebel and Willie Mobley all on the roster, Heacock feels like he has the talent to wreak havoc on opposing lines in 2009. But for them to get to that point, that experience – which includes six returnees who started at least two games last year – needs to pay off.
"Any time you have an experienced group, you want to try to take it to the next level as far as becoming real students of the game and fine-tuning any skills that you might have," Heacock said. "I think they've done a pretty good job of that."
The Buckeye linemen started working in winter to get to that point with each adding moves and new techniques to their repertoires.
"We just have to pull it all together," Worthington said. "We have to be better football players. We've been doing so much more technique during the offseason and before spring. I think it's going to pay off. I've seen it already in practice where guys are doing things they've never done before as far as technique moves."
Some of those moves have been picked up through film research. For the second year in a row, Denlinger said that he and his teammates have popped in tape of the defending Super Bowl champions in order to pick up some new tricks, this year watching the dominating defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers coached by former Buckeye Dick LeBeau.
"We're learning from NFL players, what they do to become great," he said. "We're just kind of learning what they do and trying to transfer that to what we do out there."
So far, it appears to have paid off. Even though the Buckeyes have been without Williams and Wells because of injuries – a walking wounded list to which Robert Rose was added midway through practice today, though Worthington labeled the injury as just a twist – the defensive linemen have looked sharp through the early days of practice.
That fact has to have been comforting to Heacock, who has high hopes for his charges after just one, Nader Abdallah, graduated after last season.
"We want to see a group that probably I guess if it could be one thing, dominate," he said. "I think that's what this group is going to have to do. For us to be a good defense, I think the group is going to have to become dominant and I think they're going to have to be destructive."
That's a task the defensive line appears to have the attitude to tackle.
"If we dominate up front, it's going to take a lot of pressure off of the guys in the back end," Denlinger said. "We're going to need to do everything we need to do whether it's getting after the passer or stopping the run."