Versatility equals victory for Buckeyes D-line


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's not unusual that Ohio State coaches ask their defensive linemen to play multiple positions. Almost every successful team makes similar requests.

But rarely do you get a defensive line where each interchangeable part functions at or near All-Big Ten level.

The Buckeyes' defense is nicknamed "The Silver Bullets." And this season, the bullets are flying from every angle.

"Playing different positions, there's nothing like it," Buckeyes defensive lineman and co-captain Doug Worthington said. "[Ohio State] always had a lot of versatile guys, but this defensive line is showing how versatile it really can get."

The line leads one of the nation's most dominant defenses, a unit that owns three shutouts on its résumé and nearly had a fourth last week against Penn State. The front four ranks third nationally against the run (85.4 yards per game), hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 20 games and has recorded 20 sacks in Big Ten play, which ties Purdue for the league lead.

Ohio State will once again lean on the line Saturday as it tries to secure its fifth consecutive Big Ten title and a likely Rose Bowl berth against No. 10 Iowa (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Worthington came to Ohio State as a defensive end but lacked the speed to be an every-down pass-rusher, so he moved to the 3-technique defensive tackle position, lining up between an opposing guard and a tackle and shooting the gap. But he still plays some end as well. Last week against Penn State, Cameron Heyward recorded sacks at both the end and tackle positions.

"He played both. I’m playing defensive end, defensive tackle and nose guard," Worthington said. "Thaddeus [Gibson] is playing linebacker and defensive end. We’re sometimes dropping, sometimes looping or whatnot. It gives the offensive line a different viewpoint of who's coming."

By the time they realize who's coming and from which direction, it's usually too late.

Ohio State not only boasts versatility, but tremendous depth up front. Todd Denlinger has stepped in seamlessly for the injured Dexter Larimore, while backups Lawrence Wilson, Nathan Williams and Rob Rose have combined for 7.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss.

"It's the caliber of the player and the situations they put them in that make it tough," Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said. "If it's third-and-8, they may take a kid and play him as a defensive end because they get a little better pass rush out of him.

"They're big, strong kids, and they're good. And they're smart. And they can adjust. And it does make it tougher."

Adjusting to multiple positions isn't always easy. Worthington remembers Gibson, cognizant of Ohio State's rich linebacker tradition, struggling at first to play the defensive end-linebacker hybrid.

But the 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior soon saw the benefits of being versatile and leads the team in tackles for loss (10.5) to go along with two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

"In this day and age," Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel said, "there are so many different styles of football and so many things that the offenses bring at you, your people have to be very versatile."

Not to mention very good.