- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Johnathan Hankins has the least creative and most appropriate nickname on Ohio State's team: Big Hank.
The term big has followed Hankins from the moment he set (big) foot on Ohio State's campus. Even though Hankins has slimmed down significantly during his Buckeyes career -- he now checks in at 6-foot-3, 320 pounds -- the junior defensive tackle has a tough time escaping talk about his size. He's a big man with big-time skills.
Entering the 2012 season, he also has big expectations placed on his ... very big shoulders.
When ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., issued his first Big Board for the 2013 NFL draft, Hankins was the first Big Ten player listed, at the No. 11 overall selection. Although Hankins has started just one season for the Buckeyes and didn't earn first- or second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2011, his next-level potential is obvious, even to more decorated members of Ohio State's defensive line.
"His ceiling's through the roof," Buckeyes defensive lineman John Simon told ESPN.com. "He's a playmaker for us, a big-time player. You're going to need two guys to take him up. With his ability and his size and how quick he moves for his size, he's a dual threat."
Hankins is flattered by the lofty draft projections from Kiper and others, saying, "it's a big deal to see how far I came from high school."
The NFL is certainly on his radar, although he told reporters last week in Columbus that he wants to win a national title with Ohio State as a senior in 2013.
Time will tell if Hankins' plans change, but he's well aware of the increased burden he'll bear for the Buckeyes this coming season.
"I think I'm ready," Hankins told ESPN.com "With the seniors we have on defense and with [Simon], I feel like I’ve reached a level of being a leader. The more that I play, people follow me. That's one way I lead."
Hankins couldn't have a better model than the man he lines up next to, Simon. The undisputed leader of Ohio State's defense returns for his third season as a starter, and undoubtedly his second as a captain after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors and third-team AP All-America honors in 2011.
Last fall, Simon and Hankins combined for 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. Hankins led all Buckeyes defensive linemen and finished fourth on the team in tackles (67), and he and Simon were the only players to record double digits in TFLs. They combined for six tackles for loss in a win against Illinois, and Hankins racked up nine TFLs against Big Ten competition.
"He's a major help for me," Hankins said. "I'm just trying to take the characteristics he has and add them to myself so I can become a leader and be a model for the young guys. Become a true Buckeye."
Simon noted that going through a season of starting alongside Hankins helped them improve their communication skills. Hankins' ability to stay on the field -- he set a goal of 60 snaps per game in 2011 -- also helped.
"He's changed a lot of the habits, body-wise," Ohio State defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said of Hankins. "He's always been a heck of a football player, but his ability to become stronger, his ability to get his weight in a good position where he can play 60 snaps at 100 percent has been good to see."
Asked if he has a snaps-per-game goal for 2012, Hankins replied, "Until they take me out."
Hankins spent spring practice working with a new line coach, Mike Vrabel, who previously had coached Ohio State's linebackers. Although Vrabel played linebacker in the NFL, he starred as a defensive end for Ohio State, becoming the first player in Big Ten history to twice earn the league's defensive lineman of the year award (1995 and 1996). Hankins called it an "honor" to work with Vrabel and said Vrabel has talked to him a lot about one of Vrabel's former New England Patriots teammates, 325-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
All four men have met the big expectations that go along with their big frames.
This fall, Hankins hopes to do the same.