NCF Nation: Chase Farris

Huge test coming for OSU defensive line

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
11:00
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The clues started popping up in the form of ferocious pass-rushing ends who were dominating spring practice.

By the time training camp and the start of the season rolled around, a couple new bodies were added into the rotation, and Ohio State was starting to show signs that what was thought to be a potential problem was about to be solved.

[+] EnlargeJoey Bosa
Jason Mowry/Icon SMITrue freshman Joey Bosa has been pressed into action and has performed admirably.
Now with four games under their belt, the Buckeyes are reasonably certain that an entirely rebuilt defensive line has gone from possible weakness to legitimate strength.

But even with all the information they’ve compiled -- dating to the end of last season and through an impressive start outside of Big Ten play -- all No. 4 Ohio State really has at this point is a hypothesis. The true test is coming Saturday, with No. 23 Wisconsin and its powerful rushing game visiting Ohio Stadium to provide a more concrete answer about just how good the Buckeyes are up front.

“They have not received the challenge yet like this one,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “This will be the biggest challenge to this point, maybe the rest of the year, for our defensive front seven.

“I know we’ve had conversations about this outfit before, because the run game is real. You can get embarrassed real fast if you're not gap-sound and handling your business.”

The Buckeyes went about their nonconference business with ruthless efficiency and relative ease, relaxing some of the concerns about filling the void left by three graduated seniors and a junior who left early for the NFL draft. But given the level of competition a largely inexperienced unit has faced compared to what it will encounter in the trenches against the Badgers, it’s difficult to reach much of a conclusion until after this weekend’s prime-time matchup.

Ohio State hasn’t been at full strength on the line yet either, with Adolphus Washington missing two games due to a groin injury that has kept him from forming what appears to be a terrific tandem with fellow sophomore Noah Spence. Defensive tackle Michael Bennett was held out of last week’s blowout over Florida A&M, and Ohio State has yet to get a snap out of Tommy Schutt at the position this season due to a preseason foot injury. Those issues have pressed a true freshman into an expanded role at end, where Joey Bosa has shined, and it also forced Meyer to move offensive lineman Chase Farris back over to defense to provide more depth and talent on the interior alongside veteran Joel Hale.

But even with those limitations, the way the Buckeyes have played might give them a bit of extra credit, considering they still rank No. 9 in the nation against the rush and No. 13 in total defense, which also represents marked improvement from some early struggles a year ago in Meyer’s first season with the program. But those numbers haven’t come against teams that can block as physically or run as dangerously as the Badgers, and the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack is the measuring stick that counts for a defense looking to live up to the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets.

“I know people are going to say that it's going to come down to making tackles and stopping big plays and things like that,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “But if we do a great job up front, we'll be in good shape. If we don't do a great job up front, we'll have a tough time.

“That doesn't mean the back seven don't have to play well. The linebackers and [secondary] are every bit a part of stopping and fitting that run and being a part of that effort as the front seven. But those guys up front are where the game is won and lost.”

Testing a hypothesis doesn’t get much easier than that.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Several factors usually get mentioned first as reasons for Ohio State's 12-0 season in 2012. Braxton Miller's heroics. Carlos Hyde's emergence. The play of the defense down the stretch, led by John Simon and Ryan Shazier.

But one factor probably doesn't get mentioned enough: the performance of the team's offensive line. A major question mark going into last season, the line shaped up as one of the best in the Big Ten last year under the tutelage of Ed Warriner. And with most of the group back and some better depth, the unit provides a strong reason to believe in the Buckeyes again in 2013.

[+] EnlargeJack Mewhort
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLeft tackle Jack Mewhort, an all-Big Ten-level talent in 2012, could be the Buckeyes' next great leader.
Warriner turned in one of the better coaching jobs in the league last year, rounding into shape a crew that was previously undistinguished and underwhelming. He turned Reid Fragel, a former tight end, into a standout right tackle who should get drafted later this month. Corey Linsley went from playing guard to one of the conference's top centers, while Jack Mewhort developed into a top-flight left tackle. One of the indelible images of the Buckeyes' season was the line pushing around Michigan State's terrific defense to grind out the victory in East Lansing.

About the only thing Warriner had to worry about last season was health, as there was no experience and precious little depth behind the starters. He doesn't have the same worries this spring.

"It's a nice feeling to know you probably have a backup tackle and a backup guard," he told ESPN.com.

Four starters are back, so the real battle this spring is to replace Fragel at that right-tackle spot. Right now, sophomores Chase Farris and Taylor Decker are splitting a lot of first-team reps there, with Darryl Baldwin also in the mix.

"Those two guys have a lot of ability," Warriner said. "The more comfortable they get and the more confidence they get, one of them could take off -- or maybe both will and we'll play by committee. But they have high-level talent and all the traits of really good linemen."

Head coach Urban Meyer said Tuesday that redshirt freshman Pat Elflein has been one of the surprises of the spring, and he could add depth at guard or tackle. Warriner also said Jacoby Boren is making strides at center. While the team suffered a setback when reserve Antonio Underwood tore his anterior cruciate ligament late last week, the Buckeyes should still be able to rotate more guys on the offensive line this fall.

"If the next man in can play a certain amount but the level doesn't drop off enough to hurt our team, we might do that just to keep the unit fresh and hopefully be smart throughout the season," Warriner said.

But Ohio State will want its veterans on the field as much as possible. Mewhort, whom ESPN.com voted as a first-team All-Big Ten performer, has been hailed as one of the team's best leaders and anointed by Meyer as a possible replacement for Simon in that regard.

"He's what you want in terms of an attitude, of work ethic, of being a competitor," Warriner said. "When you're a first-year starter at a new position with a new coaching staff, sometimes you just worry about your own business, and that was him to some degree last year. But now, he's taking kind of a bigger role with his leadership on offense and even the team as a whole."

Warriner said guards Andrew Norwell, a first All-Big Ten team honoree by the media last season, and Marcus Hall have made maybe the biggest improvements of anyone on the line this offseason. Along with Linsley, whom Warriner said has "elite-level strength," the Buckeyes have the potential to field four all-conference type linemen.

"We think we possibly could, if they play up to their ability level," he said. "The good thing about the group is, they don't really care about that. If we won the Big Ten and none of them made all-conference, they wouldn't care a bit. That's the kind of unselfish players they are."

Warriner said he has challenged the group to help lead a top-five national offensive attack this season. Ohio State led the Big Ten in scoring last year (37.2 points per game) and finished second in rushing yards per game (242.3). The offensive line led the way, though players like Miller and Hall sure helped.

"We know the quality of our skill guys can erase some things and create some big plays," Warriner said. "If you block it for six, you might get 16. At some places, if you block it for six, that's what they'll get -- six yards."

Everything works in concert. But don't forget the Buckeyes' offensive line when talking about reasons for the team's success.

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