As he begins molding this year's unit through spring football, the team's defensive coordinator said he needs to find four starters and four reserves who can rotate in without seeing a drop in production. Working with a younger group, Heacock said he will be working harder this spring than he had to last season.
"We've got some experience, but the depth is going to be critical," he said Thursday after the team's first practice. "The young guys are going to have to really come on fast. They've got to learn a lot, they've got to learn the defense. We were fortunate last year that we had a lot of older guys in the two-deep and they could just run out there and run the defense.
"Today was a little bit more work for me trying to get them lined up."
The most recognizable name not on the roster this spring is Thaddeus Gibson, last year's leader in tackles for loss, but his is not the only vacated spot. The Buckeyes will have to replace four seniors who were in the two-deep last season in Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger, Rob Rose and Lawrence Wilson.
Together, those five linemen combined for 136 tackles, 28 tackles for loss and 12 sacks.
"You look at Thaddeus and Lawrence and all those seniors and take their reps out and take their sacks out and their tackles for loss out, we've taken a lot of production out of that defensive line," Heacock said. "Now who's going to step up? Somebody's got to take their places as far as the production."
Three of the four starters appear set. Seniors Dexter Larimore and Cameron Heyward will reprise starting roles from last season, while sophomore John Simon has already claimed another starting spot. According to Heacock, the fourth and final spot will come down to a battle between juniors Nathan Williams and Solomon Thomas.
Among that group, Heyward and Larimore are the early favorites to be the leaders of the group.
"The biggest thing is leadership and being able to bring this team together," Larimore said. "We've got a lot of talent on this team but we've got a lot of young guys so we've got to bring those young guys along. We've got to make sure they know what they're doing and make sure they know their responsibilities. If we can get this team together, we can be real good."
Said Heyward, who turned down the chance to go to the NFL after last season: "This team might depend on me a little bit more than last year since we don't have as much depth."
On the first day of practice, Williams got the majority of the first-team reps at the Leo position vacated by Gibson.
"Both of them had really good offseasons," Heacock said of Thomas and Williams. "Thaddeus is gone, so they see an opportunity and they're giving good effort and there's good competition there. If one lets down, we can always put the other one at the other end spot."
Williams recorded 26 tackles last year, eight of which went for loss. Thomas had six tackles in limited action and has primarily been relegated to the bench through his OSU career.
Last year, the speed Gibson and Williams brought to the table allowed the Buckeyes to use a 3-4 defensive alignment at times throughout the season. Heacock said he feels that will remain part of the plan this season as well.
Asked if he likes a starting four that includes Heyward, Larimore, Simon and Williams, Heacock said, "I think there's some potential. Those guys all had reps last year with Cameron. Nate's been playing for two years even though he's backed up Thad. He's played a ton these last two years and Simon played a lot last year and really came on. He's had an unbelievably good offseason."
Finding that starting four is only half the battle. The OSU front was among the nation's best last season because it was able to rotate eight players throughout the game. Heacock's goal is to again find that many linemen.
"As far as the backups, Garrett Goebel has to step up for us," the coach said. "He's got to fit into one of those spots. I think Adam Bellamy is a young guy at 295 pounds that ran really well in the offseason. We're counting on him."
It all starts with the starters, obviously, and that is where Heacock is primarily challenging players to grow into dominant linemen.
"To me, all four of your first guys have to be able to make plays," he said. "If you're going to be good, you have to have four playmakers up there. I think John Simon proved last year at the end of the year that he could become that playmaker and he's going to have to even get better. I think John Simon has to do that, I think Dex has to step up and become a dominant player, Cam's got to become a better player and then our Leos between (Thomas) and Nate have got to become dominant players.
"They've got to make plays and produce."