NCF Nation: Nathan Williams
Asked to identify his top goal during spring practice, Washington made sure to give a nod to the man who showed him the way in 2012.
"To fill the shoes of John Simon," Washington told ESPN.com. "I know those are some big shoes to fill. I'm just working my hardest to try and do that."
But Simon maximized every ounce of talent he had during an exceptional Buckeyes career, earning respect from teammates, fans and coaches, including Urban Meyer, who put Simon in a select category of players he has coached (he hangs Simon's and Tim Tebow's jerseys in his office at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center). He attacked the weight room and practices the same way he did the game field on fall Saturdays, and everyone took notice, including a young defensive lineman from Cincinnati.
"His competitive spirit, that's the biggest thing," Washington said. "I'm pretty athletic, and I've got a lot of things God blessed me with to play football, but his competitive spirit is what I take away the most."
Washington is part of a new-look Buckeyes defensive line that must replace Simon and three other starters (tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel, and end Nathan Williams). As a true freshman, Washington appeared in 10 games, logging 156 plays and recording three sacks, 3.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
He recorded two of the sacks in Ohio State's final three games.
"My first game when I went out there, things were just lightning fast," Washington said. "But as the year went on, it kind of slowed down. Now I'm just out there playing, out there competing."
Washington has the size and skills to play both line spots but has been practicing this spring at defensive end. He'll likely start opposite fellow true sophomore Noah Spence, who logged 237 plays last season, the most among the Buckeyes' returning linemen.
"He's learning how to do some other things, like moving down inside at times and things that aren't as natural to him," defensive coordinator Luke Fickell told colleague Brian Bennett. "He's very athletic out on the edge, and he's getting a lot better in different situations and things we've asked him to do, like being one of the inside fit guys."
Spence and Washington headlined Meyer's first recruiting class at Ohio State, which included arguably the best defensive line haul in the country. They live in the same dorm as freshmen and have talked about getting a place together off campus for the next academic year. Washington said Spence will "probably be one of my best friends for life."
The two typically are mentioned in the same sentence when it comes to football, and they form the foundation for Ohio State's future along the D-line.
"Noah brings the athleticism and the speed," Washington said, "and I can bring the speed and the power. But Noah also has power. Noah's a lot stronger than he looks. We bring the same things."
Spence has drawn rave reviews for his play throughout the spring, and Washington seems to be making strides in recent weeks. Meyer, who describes Washington as a "wonderful person," said the lineman always grades high in terms of attitude and effort but lacked a chip on his shoulder.
"He's not an angry player," Meyer said. "The position he plays, you have to play angry. You can see that starting to come out these last three or four practices."
Ohio State's spring game has added meaning for Washington, who returns to his hometown and will take the field Saturday at Paul Brown Stadium. The defensive line will be in the spotlight as many are interested to see how the replacement project is going.
"We get reminded about it every day," Washington said. "We just go out there and try to show the guys returning on defense, Coach Meyer, Coach Fickell, that we can fill the shoes and be just like they were."
Washington already has a believer on the offense in a guy he often faces in practice.
"He's obviously got all the physical tools, he's blessed," Buckeyes left tackle Jack Mewhort said. "I see him coming along every day. That chip on his shoulder, people may have not have seen that before, but I can definitely see that more as spring ball goes.
"If he keeps going in the right direction, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with in this conference."
It's rare when a defensive line coach steps on the practice field and doesn't see a single starter from the previous season. How rare? According to Ohio State's athletics communications staff, the Buckeyes haven't had a complete overhaul of their starting defensive line since the 1985 season, when all three top spots had to be filled. Although Ohio State ended up starting four new linemen in 1998, it had a returning starter from 1997 (end Matt LaVrar) on the roster.
All four starters from the 2012 team -- ends John Simon and Nathan Williams, and tackles Johnathan Hankins and Garrett Goebel -- have moved on. The effort to replace them is arguably Ohio State's top offseason story line, as the Buckeyes could be a defensive line away from contending for a national title in 2013.
Vrabel is stressing three areas for the linemen this spring -- attitude, effort and toughness. If all three are achieved, Vrabel thinks the players can "let their God-given ability to take over."
The Buckeyes' linemen boast plenty of ability. Ohio State had arguably the nation's top defensive-line haul in the 2012 recruiting class, signing four ESPN 150 defensive linemen, three of whom -- Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt -- saw the field as true freshmen. More help is on the way from the 2013 class with standouts like tackle Joey Bosa, an ESPN 150 selection. Two incoming line recruits, Tyquan Lewis and Tracy Sprinkle, enrolled early and are participating in spring ball.
But the group has only nine combined career starts, five from junior end J.T. Moore. Its career tackles leader, junior tackle Michael Bennett, has a whopping 28 stops in 21 games.
"The guys we've got have a little bit of experience with Adolphus and Noah and Tommy," Vrabel said. "Michael Bennett and Joel Hale, Steve Miller, those guys have been here, contributing and giving us some leadership. And Tracy and Tyquan are just trying to figure their way through this thing.
"We're learning every day."
Although Ohio State's defensive line undoubtedly will be younger, Vrabel also thinks it will be faster with players like Spence and Washington, who finished third on the team with three sacks in 2012. Again, talent isn't a problem, but the line needs leadership after losing two-time captain John Simon.
Head coach Urban Meyer challenged several of the older linemen at the start of the spring, saying, "Steve Miller's been here for a while. It's time to go play. Chris Carter, how long has he been here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore." At the very least, Ohio State needs the veterans to fill out the line rotation.
Ideally, they can take the reins.
"No one's going to replace what John Simon provided for this program," Vrabel said. "We can only hope that we find guys who are willing to lead, be the same person every day, be competitive, play with some toughness and play with some effort. We'll have guys step up."
Vrabel should get an accurate gauge on his group this spring because of the men they'll be lining up against. What the Buckeyes lack in defensive-line experience, they make up for on their offensive line, which returns four starters with 81 combined career starts.
"If we can compete against them," Vrabel said, "we feel like we're going to be OK."
Spence evidently has been competing well, impressing Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner with his edge-rushing speed.
Vrabel's return to his alma mater in 2011 generated tremendous excitement, and he made an immediate impact on the recruiting trail. But his coaching skills will be under the microscope as he works with a group that, for now, is Ohio State's biggest question mark.
"I'm a young coach, I'm new to this, so every day is a challenge," he said. "I enjoy it, I embrace the challenge and try to do my best."
But some NFL draft decisions are made for you. And when you're a virtual lock in the top 15 of the draft, you make the jump, no questions asked.
Hankins surprised no one Monday in announcing he'll forgo his senior season and enter the 2013 NFL draft. The Ohio State junior defensive tackle boosted his stock this season, eating up space and ball-carriers in the middle of the Buckeyes' defensive line. Many NFL draft prognosticators, including our own Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, have Hankins as the first Big Ten player off the board in April.
Hankins won't help Ohio State try to win a national title in 2013, but he undoubtedly made the right call.
"I will always be grateful for the family I have gained here at Ohio State," Hankins said in a prepared statement. "I want to thank coach [Urban] Meyer, coach [Mike] Vrabel and strength coach [Mickey] Marotti for bringing the best out of me as a football player and person, and for their constant support. I also want to thank coach [Jim] Tressel and coach [Jim] Heacock for recruiting me and giving me an opportunity to be a part of this great school and great program."
Hankins added that he intends to finish his degree at Ohio State, which is great to hear. He started every game the past two seasons and finishes his career with 138 tackles (58 solo, 80 assists), including 16.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.
Although Ohio State expected Hankins to leave, his departure underscores some potential depth issues the team will have up front in 2013. Defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, moves on along with nose tackle Garrett Goebel and defensive end Nathan Williams.
The good news is Urban Meyer has recruited very well at defensive line, securing blue chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington in his first class (both played this fall). Linemen like Michael Bennett, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale all should see increased roles in 2013. Ohio State also is bringing in several standout D-line recruits like ESPN 300 selections Joey Bosa and Michael Hill.
Ohio State has a lot of young talent along the defensive line, but the Buckeyes need those players to grow up in a hurry if they want to take another step forward on defense.
Steve from Albuquerque, N.M., writes: Who will get the most pursued Nittany Lion this offseason, Deion Barnes, Allen Robinson, or Bill O'Brien?
Adam Rittenberg: All three men likely will have chances to leave, but I'd expect all three to remain. It will be interesting if any NFL teams pursue O'Brien, who has excelled both as a coach and as a motivator in his first season as a head coach. My sense is he wants to see things through in State College, where his legacy likely would be much greater than if he went to the NFL, which spits out coaches every few years. Barnes and Robinson both have stated they intend to remain with Penn State, but that likely won't stop other teams from recruiting them. Both men can be multi-year starters at Penn State and play for coaches (O'Brien, Larry Johnson, etc.) who know what it takes to get them to the NFL. While every player wants to compete for championships, it won't stunt Robinson's or Barnes' long-term development if they remain at PSU.
Michael from Ft. Picklett, Va., writes: Adam, I have been wondering. Why is it that the Huskers are not able to land the top prospects? Is it location? I see Ohio State and Michigan are able to take about anyone they want. What can the Husker do to improve? I feel this is the reason the Huskers are not able to be as dominate as the teams of the 90's.
Adam Rittenberg: Michael, Nebraska still gets some top prospects, but there are some challenges for the program. The location doesn't help, because Nebraska has to extend itself nationally more than other programs. And for recruiting purposes, being in the Big Ten provides some challenges, too. Nebraska's recruiting success in Texas stemmed in part from the pitch that players could play near home a few times a year (Texas, Texas Tech, Baylor, Texas A&M). That's not there any more. Dirk Chatelain addressed the Texas recruiting issue this week, noting that Nebraska recruiting coordinator Ross Els still thinks the team can have a good presence in the Lone Star State. I guess time will tell, but I'm not so sure. The key is for Nebraska to increase its presence in the Big Ten footprint, particularly Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. The Husker coaches have ties to the region and should be able to pluck more high-level prospects in the years to come. A Big Ten championship this season -- plus a Rose Bowl championship -- certainly will help.
Nate from Iowa writes: Adam, I have one that if you are brave enough to answer it will start a great debate on the message board below. I had a very spirited debate with a good friend that wasn't settled and wonder if you can give your input. No one can deny the great legacy and tradition of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. 5 National titles, 3 Heisman Trophy Winners, Top 5 All-time Wins in NCAA Football. But can you really say that Iowa, although they haven't beat Nebraska since the 80's, hasn't had more success than Nebraska in the past 10 years? I'm not one to measure success on wins alone, I look at the entire picture. What are your thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Nate, if you're going purely by on-field results, you can make a case for Iowa against Nebraska from 2002-2011. Keep in mind Nebraska endured a major dip in its program under Bill Callahan, while Iowa had a historic run from 2002-04 and another surge in 2009, when it won an Orange Bowl championship. Both teams were very good in 2009, but Nebraska since has been the stronger program, winning nine or more games in each of the past four seasons. The Huskers have lacked the major breakthroughs Iowa had in 2002, 2004 and 2009, but they've been a little more consistent as of late. It's a fun debate, and you can make good arguments for either team.
Rob from Omaha writes: Adam -- You and Brian have been down on Michigan State and Maxwell, but really a 9 point differential from 5-5 to 9-1. I think Maxwell has played very well this year, a few poor decisions and a couple balls that sailed, but otherwise, I think he is very strong. Assuming no early departures, I say Sparty is a top 5 program next year. What are you thoughts?
Adam Rittenberg: Rob, love the optimism, but a top-5 program? That's setting the bar very high for a team that will finish with at least five losses (no matter how close they are). I guess it's possible, but that's an enormous jump to make. I also have a hard time seeing how Maxwell has played "very well" when he's completing barely than half of his passes (54.2 percent). While at times people have been too hard on him, as his receivers are either unproven or unreliable, a drop-back quarterback with limited mobility needs to be completing at least 65 percent of his passes to be doing very well in my book. While Ohio State's Braxton Miller completes just 56.9 percent of his passes, he does so much more as a runner to help his team win. Maxwell needs to get a lot better for Michigan State to contend for the Big Ten title in 2013, and I think he could make those strides. But it might be tough for Michigan State to maintain this type of defense year after year, especially if/when coordinator Pat Narduzzi leaves to become a head coach. The offense also will have question marks, namely line depth and possibly running back if Le'Veon Bell bolts for the NFL. I agree that Michigan State will be an improved team next year and most likely a contender in the Legends division, but let's pump the brakes on the top-5 talk.
Chris from High Point, N.C., writes: Hey, Adam, with the lack of depth at LB for the Buckeyes and all of the talent that they are seemingly stockpiling on the D-line, do you think that some of those players might switch to LB or work in a modified role like Nathan Williams? Thanks for considering my question.
Adam Rittenberg: Chris, some players might work in a rush-end role like Nathan Williams or former Buckeye standout Thaddeus Gibson. Freshman Noah Spence, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, might fit into that spot. But for the most part, Ohio State's younger defensive linemen are big enough and strong enough to play up front, and likely wouldn't work well at linebacker. I agree building depth at linebacker is a challenge for Ohio State, but you don't want to force a player at a spot where he doesn't naturally fit physically. Keep in mind, too, that Ohio State has a lot of youth at linebacker that could turn out to be good in the long run, players like Joshua Perry, David Perkins and Camren Williams. Linebacker will be a fascinating position to watch in 2013 as those guys get a little older.
Solomon from Ann Arbor, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, in your Week 11 predictions, you predict that Iowa "ensures the Boilers won't be bowling for the second straight year." This isn't quite true as Purdue played in the Pizza Bowl last year and beat WMU 37-32. Just keeping you honest.
Dan from Carmel, Ind., writes: You stated in this week's predictions that Purdue won't go bowling for the 2nd straight year, better check that, they played in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in 2011. Not that it should help Hope keep his job.
Adam Rittenberg writes: I think that sentence has been misunderstood, and for that, I apologize. I was trying to say a loss would prevent Purdue from going bowling for a second straight year, not that a loss would keep Purdue home for a second straight year. I should have been more clear, but I'm well aware Purdue played in the postseason last year and gave the Big Ten one of its three bowl wins.
William from Denver writes: Adam, what do you think are the chances of Fitzgerald leaving for Auburn or Arkansas if, big IF, those coaching positions open up?
Adam Rittenberg: Almost zero chance, William. You don't turn down Michigan, which would have been a really good fit, and then leave for mid-level SEC jobs where you have no connections. Also, Pat Fitzgerald is a Big Ten guy through and through, and I don't see him enjoying some of the challenges in the SEC (not talking about on-field competition, if you catch my drift). It wouldn't surprise me if an SEC team or two pursued Fitzgerald, but I'd be really surprised if he leaves Northwestern any time soon. He received a 10-year contract last year, and Northwestern recently approved the on-campus facility he really wanted. Fitzgerald has ties to Chicago and wants to see things through at Northwestern with the new facility.
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- This was supposed to be Penn State's return to the big time.
Nearly a year to the day from Joe Paterno's last game, the Nittany Lions geared up to show the world that they were back from 12 months of turmoil. A soldout Beaver Stadium roared on its red-hot team, just like the old days.
But Ohio State ruined the celebration. The Buckeyes, in fact, might just be the nation's most unwanted party crasher.
After their 35-23 victory in the Ineligi-Bowl, it's time to start planning for the inevitable. This team is now on a collision course with a 12-0 season after acing its toughest road challenge of the year.
You can quibble with the Buckeyes' schedule -- which includes no wins over current Top 25 teams -- or their various shortcomings. You can't argue with the record.
"Let's focus on the positive," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said after the game, objecting to a question about his team's flawed performances. "We're 9-0. It's good to be 9-0. Maybe you can help me, but how many other teams are 9-0?"
The answer is none. Which might also be the answer to the question: Who can beat this team the rest of the way?
The Buckeyes play 2-6 Illinois next week in a virtual bye week, then get a real week off to heal up. Then comes a trip to Wisconsin, which just lost at home to Michigan State and lost its starting quarterback. They end the year, of course, with the showdown against Michigan. That game, as you probably know, is in Columbus. Perfection could be on the line.
"We think we're definitely a top team in the country," receiver/tight end Jake Stoneburner said. "People underestimate us. But there's something about this team."
Ohio State has had some shaky wins, like last week's overtime great escape against Purdue. But every time it needs to make a play, that play gets made.
"It was the same thing with the  national championship team," defensive end Nathan Williams said. "They seemed to [find a] way to win the game at the very end, whether it be the last play or the last drive. I think we have a great chemistry as a team going on right now, and we're just going to continue to feed off it."
Nobody, not even Williams, is suggesting that this Ohio State club is as good as that 2002 team. But it does have a similar knack for winning.
On Saturday that winning effort started, surprisingly, on defense. A unit that had been battered and bruised most of the season held Penn State without an offensive touchdown until the final 10 minutes and allowed only 32 rushing yards. The game plan called for more blitzing than the Buckeyes normally do in order to fluster Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin. Ohio State sacked him four times.
In maybe the key sequence of the game, linebacker Ryan Shazier dashed through the middle untouched to tackle McGloin early in the third quarter. Then he picked McGloin off for a 17-yard interception return touchdown on the very next play.
Shazier has struggled with missed tackles most of the year, but played inspired on Saturday while wearing a new jersey number, 48, in honor of his deceased high school friend Gary Curtis.
"It almost felt like a dream," Shazier said. "I was thinking about him the whole game. I felt like he was playing there with me."
Quarterback Braxton Miller was lying in a hospital room last Saturday after suffering a neck injury against Purdue. Early in the game, in the words of Stoneburner, Miller looked "a little bit jittery." Miller completed just six of his first 18 passes and overthrew a sure touchdown to Corey Brown.
But as he has done so often, Miller turned up his game when it mattered most. He threaded a perfect pass to Stoneburner on third down for a 72-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter, after Penn State had cut the lead to 28-16. And even though Miller used more caution while running in deference to his body, he still managed to control the game with 134 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
The Nittany Lions' defense was visibly gassed trying to chase Miller in the second half after Ohio State went to its hurry-up offense. And Miller turned in maybe the prettiest 1-yard run in history for his first touchdown run, avoiding two tacklers and somehow adjusting his body mid-leap to slide past safety Malcolm Willis into the end zone.
"We have a drill where you make seven people miss," Meyer joked. "I was on the sideline, so I didn't really see it. But the conversation on the headset was, 'Oh, my god.'"
The Buckeyes are probably making a lot of people say that these days. Just wait until they win three more games.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Braxton Miller wore a T-shirt bearing the likeness of Wile E. Coyote and the words "Super Genius" to his postgame Ohio State interview session.
That didn't seem quite right. While Miller's brilliance for the Buckeyes this season can't really be questioned, he's more like their Road Runner, able to escape out of seemingly impossible jams.
The sophomore went "beep beep" again on Saturday, leading No. 12 Ohio State off the cliff against a California team poised to pull the upset in Ohio Stadium. But Miller's heroics -- which included the game-winning 72-yard pass to Devin Smith with 3:26 remaining -- left the Golden Bears grasping at air in the Buckeyes' 35-28 victory.
"When you need someone to make a play, Braxton's the guy," tight end/wide receiver Jake Stoneburner said. "He's been doing it since he's been here. In the clutch, you've got to give it to Number 5. He'll do something with the ball."
The Buckeyes (3-0) were frankly lucky to beat a mediocre Cal team that lost at home to Nevada in Week 1. In fact, if not for three missed field goals by the visitors, they might have suffered their first loss under Urban Meyer. They certainly can't expect to play like this in the Big Ten opener two weeks from now at Michigan State and enjoy similar results.
One of the biggest -- and most surprising concerns -- for this team right now is its defense. Though blessed with a talented defensive front and veterans in the back end, the Silver Bullets have yet to fully fire. They gave up 512 total yards to the Golden Bears, including 224 on the ground.
Meyer wanted to see a better pass rush, and he got that with six sacks. But Cal did an excellent job at countering that pressure with runs and short throws. Missed tackles, a problem all of last year, were a major issue again Saturday.
"Terrible," Meyer said. "Terrible. I wish I had some magic answer for you. We don't tackle well right now. ... It's time to play Ohio State defense, and that wasn't Ohio State defense at all."
Cal's Brendan Bigelow bounced out of a crowd of Buckeyes defenders in the third quarter to rip off an 81-yard touchdown run, the longest rush ever by an opponent at the Horseshoe. Even worse, after Ohio State regained the lead at 28-21 in the fourth quarter, Bigelow needed only two carries to take his team 75 yards for the tying score.
"I know I had him a couple of times right in my reach," Ohio State defensive lineman Nathan Williams said. "I don't know what happened after that. We pride ourselves on stopping the run around here like always, and to give up a couple of long plays like that, it's a backbreaker."
The Buckeyes looked ready to break the game open early, running out to a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. But then they went nearly 25 minutes without scoring, gaining only 20 total yards on their next seven possessions.
Cal confused Ohio State with switching defenses and kept loading the box in an effort to stop Miller from taking off and running. It worked beautifully.
Even the return of Jordan Hall, who made his season debut after a summer foot injury, didn't help the offense get moving too much. Hall carried 17 times for 87 yards but was mostly tied up on zone read plays. He looked more like Percy Sledge than Percy Harvin.
"I was a little rusty," he said. "There were some times when I lost my footing when I should have stayed up. There were a lot of runs I could have finished."
Once California took its first lead early in the fourth quarter, Meyer appeared to dip into his old Florida playbook. There was a nice option pitch to Hall. There was the throwback to the tight end. And Miller finished the drive with the famous Tim Tebow jump pass from the goal line to Stoneburner.
"We've been working on that since he's been here," Stoneburner said.
The winning play, though, was a pure Miller creation. The call was intended to be a pass to Corey Brown. But after Miller scrambled to his right, Cal's safety came up to guard against the run, leaving Smith more open than a Berkeley hippie commune. Miller said when he saw Smith a good 10 yards clear of the defense, he thought, "Oh my god."
It was another unbelievable play involving Ohio State's Road Runner. But Meyer knows his team can't rely on that for much longer. The Big Ten season is coming after next week's tune-up against UAB, and defenses like Michigan State's will force Miller to make more conventional plays in the passing game.
"It's kind of turning into that kind of a world for us right now," he said.
Miller might make the Buckeyes look like super geniuses right now, but they've got to figure more things out on both sides of the ball to avoid tripping up soon.
Nick from GoBlueBABY writes: Unlike most of the Michigan faithful I'm not going to be naive and think Michigan is positioned for a repeat of last year. Obviously there are some big question marks about the strength and depth of the O and D line, but I think people are hitting the panic button a little early for Big Blue. I'm a numbers guy and if you look at Michigan's first two games this year compared to last year it's not that different. They allowed 848 yards and 66 points so far this year compared to 792 yards and 41 points last year. However if you look at the turnover margin they were +5 last year compared to -3 this year so there is a need for the defense to step it up and create turnovers and take some pressure off the offense. At this point last year Michigan was unranked and nobody expected them to beat Ohio, get a BCS bowl bid and win, make it to 11 wins, and finish as a top 10 team. Last year's start wasn't pretty but it turned out pretty darn good so isn't it a little early for everyone to be jumping ship?
Brian Bennett: You make some solid points. Michigan's defense was not nearly as good in the first two weeks last year as it would become. Anyone remember the Notre Dame game last year? It really seemed like things started to click last year in the fourth game against San Diego State. I guess the big difference, besides the competition level this year, is that last season was the first under a new coaching staff. Even with new starters, there was an assumption that the Wolverines would be able to pick up where they left off. It's far too soon to write off Michigan, however. This team should be in the thick of the Big Ten race all year long.
The thing that has concerned me ever since the spring is the lack of depth on the lines and what would happen if there were injuries. The Wolverines already appear to be hit harder by injuries this year than they were last season. A lot of freshmen are playing, and it's tough to win the Big Ten with so much youth in key spots.
Adam from Ann Arbor writes: I hate to remind people of last weekend, but I have a question about the B1G playing on the West Coast. I saw an article on NPR today about NFL teams from the East playing on the West coast at night - - turns out over the past 25 years West Coast teams that play east coast teams at night win 70% of the time due, in part, to our natural body clocks. I know this is starting to sound like another excuse, and I'm not excusing the B1G's horrific play, but I was curious if anyone has bothered to conduct a similar study in college sports. College kids keep strange schedules and the effect might be better or worse on them. If there is a similar effect, shouldn't the B1G at least try to schedule day (3:30) games when they go out West (not that it would have helped Wisconsin)?
Brian Bennett: Anyone who has traveled across several time zones can tell you that it takes a while for your body to adjust. It would be naive to think the time change plays no role. But Big Ten teams played at several different times last week out West -- Wisconsin played at 3 p.m. Central time, Nebraska at 6:30 and Illinois at 9:30. And of course all three lost, with the Illini looking the most listless. College students should have more energy than pro players in their 30s, and charter flights make the trips more manageable. I'm not sure how much of an excuse the Big Ten can make for that showing last week. Oh, and Cal will be at a potentially bigger disadvantage this week at Ohio State, playing at 9 a.m. Pacific time.
Nathan from Denver writes: I can understand the reactions to the B1G losses this weekend. And maybe this is the weakest the conference has been in several years. My concern is for the Spartans, who no one seems to be taking very seriously. Will the bad view of the B1G, in general, effect MSUs chances of playing the title game if they end the year undeafeated? I truly believe if Maxwell can line things up with the unproven WRs on this team, they will be nearly impossible to beat.
Brian Bennett: While it's too early to be thinking about undefeated seasons, that's an interesting question to ponder. A 13-0 Michigan State team might well suffer from the Big Ten reputation if there are more than two undefeated, major conference contenders out there. If it's a choice between, say, Michigan State, a 13-0 Alabama and a 13-0 USC, then the Spartans wouldn't get the benefit of the doubt (and they started way behind both in the polls). If there is only one undefeated team, a 13-0 Michigan State team would likely make the title game, though you can already imagine the howling and crying if there's a 12-1 SEC champion out there. The Spartans need to root for Boise State and Notre Dame to have strong seasons to bolster their reputation.
Hankins is an imposing physical presence at 6-foot-3, 322 pounds, and he brings good athleticism to the position. He's a big reason why the Buckeyes have one of the top defensive lines in the country. I recently caught up with the rising star known as "Big Hank" for our Friday Q&A segment:
How do you think the defense played in the opener against Miami (Ohio)?
Jonathan Hankins: We played pretty well. We kind of executed what we needed to do against a five-wide offense. It was kind of surprising that they went five-wide the whole game. We did as much as we could to keep pressure on the quarterback and keep him frustrated. I felt like we could have gotten a little bit more pressure, but the scheme they played made it kind of hard to get there at times. I think we did the best we could.
What challenges does this week's opponent, UCF, bring?
JH: This is going to be a good challenge for us. They're one of those teams that does run the ball. They're not shying away from that. They have a good running back and a good offensive line. I feel like this is our type of game, and I'm really excited for this Saturday. We're expecting to see some power and zone reads, and whatever they show us, we just have to adjust and prepare for the next play.
JH: I feel like I prepared pretty well. The first game, I felt like I was kind of getting the rust off, but I felt I did pretty good getting some pressure and, when they did run, at stopping the run and holding my ground. I feel like this game [against UCF] will be a good opening for me because they run the ball. And getting after the quarterback, because they're going to run play action and hold the ball a little longer.
As a defensive tackle, do you really like playing against running teams the most?
JH: Yeah, that's what I love to do, play the running game. And this year, I'm starting to get better as a pass-rusher. It's what I tried to improve upon this offseason, so I'm going to see how that goes with my pass rush. Hopefully, I'll accomplish what I want.
Some of the freshmen defensive linemen, like Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, made their debuts last week. What do you see out of those young guys?
JH: I feel like they're very athletic, and right now they're knowing our game plan very well. It's just going out and getting the feel of the game and not being so big-eyed and shy when there's 110,000 people out there watching them. I feel like they'll do well and definitely be a good fit for us this year.
How good was it to see Nathan Williams back in action?
JH: It was amazing to have him back in there. It's been a year, and just having him back gives me more confidence and relaxation. I know that everybody on the line can do their job, and with him being the playmaker that he is, it gives us even more confidence.
You still have Michael Bennett coming back at some point, too. Just how good and deep can this D-line be?
JH: I can't really explain how it's going to be. We've got so many guys -- with Nate, Michael, the freshmen -- it's kind of unique to see. Once everybody gets healthy and knows what to do, it's going to be a big edge for us.
Mike Vrabel is coaching the defensive line this year. What has he brought to you guys?
JH: He definitely brings a lot of energy to our defensive line and always preaches going hard and relentless effort. I feel we're learning more techniques now and more about game formations and things like that. By him playing in the league, we can always relate to everything he has provided.
How many times has he mentioned his Super Bowl rings?
JH: Every once in a while, when he wants to make a point.
You're from the Detroit area. How did you end up at Ohio State instead of Michigan?
JH: It's kind of crazy, but Ohio State was one of the first teams that was interested in me. Michigan was one of those schools that was kind of in but not in on me. Once I took my visit here, I felt like the family atmosphere and all the coaches were a good fit for me. And I kind of wanted to be a little far from home but not too far.
Were you a Michigan fan growing up?
JH: I was pretty much a Michigan fan until I got older, but then I started liking the Florida Gators. Michigan and Florida were my top schools.
So you rooted for the Gators when Urban Meyer was there?
JH: Yeah. I took a visit there and thought about going there. And now that he's coaching here, it's kind of a funny situation. Everyone was thrilled when he got here. I knew when he came in that the offense would be amazing, and from what I've seen so far, I feel like it's pretty good. In the future, I think we'll probably be one of the best teams in the country.
You're a big guy. Did you always play football, and were you always put on the lines?
JH: My freshman year, I played basketball, but once I realized it took up a lot of time, I stuck to football. This is my love and what I love to do. Actually, when I first got to high school, I played middle linebacker. As I got older and a little bit bigger, they moved me to defensive end and D-tackle and then offensive tackle. I was always a little bigger and athletic.
How much did you weigh when you were a freshman playing linebacker?
JH: I'd probably say, 250, maybe 265.
So did you just put the weight on gradually?
JH: Yeah, it was just mom's cooking and playing football. That blew me up.
What's your mom's best dish?
JH: Lasagna. With her bread.
During the ESPN All-Access stuff, fellow defensive lineman Chris Carter complained about being on a restricted diet. Have you ever had to go through that?
JH: I always try to eat healthy, but during camp it's kind of hard because there's always food, and they always want you to eat and hydrate. So it's kind of like a war with what you eat, to make sure you're ready for practice but don't eat too much and not be overweight. Once [new Ohio State team nutritionist Sarah Wick] got here, it made it much easier. She has helped me extremely, and I appreciate her.
Finally, your name popped up on a lot of preseason All-America lists and NFL draft talk. What do you make of all that?
JH: It was good to hear. But I always think the more hard work I do and the more I put on the field, the more good things will happen. I'm just focusing on this year and winning as many games as I can for the seniors and just going out there and paying football. Because that's what I love to do.
Williams (knee) and Brown (ankle) have missed the past two games. Brown is able to run but still has trouble cutting on the ankle he injured against Toledo.
Freshman J.T. Moore will continue to start for Williams, while Chris Fields is listed as the starter for Brown. True freshman receiver Devin Smith will likely continue to get more playing time after catching two touchdowns last week against Colorado.
Fickell said that the status of Buckeyes running back Jordan Hall, cornerback Travis Howard and reserve defensive back Corey Brown are still pending. All three have been sidelined after reportedly accepting $200 to appear at a charity event earlier in the year. The NCAA has told Ohio State it has more questions about the case, although it's curious why this is taking so long if it's over such a seemingly minor issue. Regardless, getting Hall and Howard back for this week's showdown at Miami would be very helpful.
Fickell also talked about why quarterback Braxton Miller didn't play on Saturday against Toledo despite the team's stated intention to work in Miller with starter Joe Bauserman. Fickell said Miller was banged up from the Akron game and missed some practice time last week. Then the Toledo game remained close throughout as the Buckeyes stuck with Bauserman.
"Things didn't quite go as planned," Fickell said. "And Braxton was probably a little bit shortened up on his preparation because he was hurt."
The plan for this week is for Miller to play at Miami, but Fickell added that the plan could change again.
Fickell said he also wasn't sure about the status of defensive end Nathan Williams and receiver Corey "Philly" Brown. Williams missed the Toledo game with a back problem, while Brown hurt his ankle during the game. Brown, the team's most experienced available receiver, "doesn't look great," Fickell said.
As it is, three key offensive starters and one defensive backup are suspended for the first five games, and quarterback Terrelle Pryor is gone for good. That means young and inexperienced players are taking on a larger role at the start of the season. But Luke Fickell said this isn't a Keanu Reeves movie, so don't refer to the new guys as "The Replacements."
"We're not trying to focus on them on being replacements," the Buckeyes' head coach said. "It's just like we had seniors graduate -- it's next man up. We're not going to sit back and wait until those guys are able to come back. Our idea is, hey, that guy steps forward and takes his opportunity.
With that said, here's a look at how Ohio State plans to fill in the gaps:
-- Quarterback. Senior Joe Bauserman and freshman Braxton Miller are officially listed as co-starters, but Fickell said Tuesday that Bauserman would get the first snaps on Saturday.
"It's leadership," Fickell said when asked why Bauserman will start. "He's done a really good job through camp. I've been impressed with the things we've asked him to do and what he's done."
But Fickell insisted that both quarterbacks would be needed this year and that he wants to see them in the heat of competition. Especially the youngster, Miller.
"Obviously, his abilities have impressed us all, and that's why he's here," Fickell said. "Until you do it and perform, we'll keep our judgments to ourselves. We know he can do it. We know he has the ability to do it. Being able to handle all the situations is what's important. We don't lack confidence in what he does, I can tell you that."
-- Running back. If there's a real chance at a Wally Pipp situation, maybe it's here. Daniel "Boom" Herron rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, but the Buckeyes have a stable of impressive, young backs who have a chance to shine in the first five games.
That stable will be a little lighter early on, as Jaamal Berry is questionable for the opener with lingering hamstring problems. Junior Jordan Hall, a versatile, do-it-all performer, is listed as the starter, with bigger backs Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith as his backups. Even without Herron, Ohio State expects its running game to be the strength of the team.
-- Wide receiver. DeVier Posey is the best and by far the most experienced wideout on the roster. In his absence, sophomore Corey "Philly" Brown must take on a larger responsibility as the No. 1 target.
"He's a guy who has really stepped up from the spring," offensive coordinator Jim Bollman said. "He's the one guy who's really got any experience. But it's a totally different role for him now than last season."
Brown might be playing more of a complementary role if Posey were eligible. Instead, younger players will be pushed into action. Redshirt freshman Verlon Reed won a starting receiver's job out of fall camp.
"The wide receivers have [been] unbelievable," Fickell said. "They've been as impressive a group, as I think, throughout camp. Maybe that's a little because we knew we had a lot of young guys, and we didn't know what to expect."
-- Left tackle. Mike Adams is one of the best, if not the best, offensive tackles in the league. Bauserman and Miller won't have that security blanket. But the Buckeyes feel they're in good hands with sophomore Andrew Norwell, who was an ESPN.com All-Big Ten Freshman team member last season.
The problem with Adams' absence is it hurts the overall depth. Ohio State lists three true freshmen as backups on the offensive line, and redshirt freshman Eric Kramer is next in line behind Norwell.
"I'm not going to lie," center Mike Brewster said, "we're a little thin."
-- Defensive end. Solomon Thomas sealed the Sugar Bowl win with his interception against Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, but he was likely ticketed for a backup role. Ohio State should still be in good shape up front with senior Nathan Williams and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins at end, while tackle John Simon can slide outside as well. Again, experienced depth is the biggest issue, as a pair of freshmen are currently listed as the backups at defensive end.
Reinforcements will arrive by Game 6. The Buckeyes hope the new guys -- don't call them "the replacements" -- can hold the fort until then.
And the Buckeyes' official depth chart for Saturday's opener against Akron has it listed exactly that way at quarterback: Joe Bauserman or Braxton Miller. Both Bauserman, a senior, and Miller, the true freshman, will play against the Zips, and the Buckeyes traditionally try to play two quarterbacks early in the season. But we still don't know who will start, though the smart money remains on the veteran Bauserman getting the first snap.
That wasn't the only interesting thing about the depth chart.
Jordan Hall is listed as the starting tailback, with Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith sharing backup duties. Conspicuously absent is Jaamal Berry, who was dealing with some hamstring issues in preseason camp.
Redshirt freshman Verlon Reed has claimed a starting spot at the 'X' receiver position ahead of Chris Fields, who is backing up Corey "Philly" Brown at the 'Y' position.
The biggest surprise, if you want to call it that, is redshirt freshman Bradley Roby listed as the starter at right cornerback. Talk about a young two-deep there. His backup is true freshman Doran Grant. If you're Akron, don't you have to test those young guys early?
The depth chart illustrates how young Ohio State is at some key positions. Nine starters are either freshmen or sophomores (10, if you count Miller). Four of the top backups on the offensive line are freshmen, while the other is sophomore guard Ivon Blackman. That's a group that can't afford many injuries. Of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep, only six are seniors, and only three of those (Tyler Moeller, Andrew Sweat and Nathan Williams) are starters.
Chalk up the relative lack of experience as another challenge this season for Luke Fickell.
The Big Ten had five defensive linemen, all from different teams, selected in the first round of April's NFL draft: Wisconsin's J.J. Watt, Illinois' Corey Liuget, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward. Iowa lost three starting D-linemen to the draft, and almost every Big Ten squad has to replace major contributors.
The personnel losses make the preseason D-line rankings both tricky and fun. The first three groups look very good, while there's not much difference in the middle of the league.
Let's take a look:
2. Ohio State: Heyward's leadership and versatility will be missed, but Ohio State always finds ways to fill the gaps up front. Junior John Simon should be primed for a breakout season. Like Heyward, Simon can play both line spots but might see more time on the edge this fall. Nathan Williams adds experience at end, and promising sophomore Johnathan Hankins could wreak havoc on the interior this fall.
3. Michigan State: Like several Big Ten teams, the Spartans build their line around a potential superstar tackle in Jerel Worthy. The junior already is projected as a potential first-round pick in the 2012 draft after recording four sacks last fall. Anthony Rashad White emerged this spring as a nice complement to Worthy. Michigan State needs a better pass rush from the end spots, and hopes are high for William Gholston and Tyler Hoover.
4. Wisconsin: Watt is a huge loss because he contributed in so many ways, but Wisconsin could account for his production with greater depth. Ends Louis Nzegwu and David Gilbert both have played a lot of football, and junior Brendan Kelly came on strong toward the end of spring practice. Senior tackle Patrick Butrym has emerged as one of the leaders on defense. Wisconsin needs young tackles like Jordan Kohout and Beau Allen to help Butrym.
5. Michigan: This is a projection pick, but I think Michigan's defensive front takes a significant step forward this season. Senior tackle Mike Martin is a bona fide NFL prospect and will lead the way, and players like Ryan Van Bergen and Craig Roh should be among the primary beneficiaries of the new defense under coordinator Greg Mattison. Michigan needs to build depth with Jibreel Black, Will Campbell and others, but there's great potential here.
6. Iowa: The Hawkeyes face a tough task in replacing multiyear starters in Clayborn, Christian Ballard and Karl Klug. Senior tackle Mike Daniels is ready to lead the group after recording 11 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2010. The biggest key is getting Broderick Binns back to his 2009 form. Iowa also needs to build depth with Lebron Daniel and others, and avoid major injuries.
7. Purdue: Defensive tackle is a major strength for Purdue as Kawann Short and Bruce Gaston Jr. form one of the league's top tandems. Short quietly turned in an extremely productive season last fall (12.5 TFLs, 6 sacks). The big unknown is how Purdue replaces Kerrigan. The Boilers need veteran Gerald Gooden to stay healthy and others to emerge alongside him.
8. Penn State: Much like Purdue, Penn State looks strong at tackle and has question marks at end. Devon Still could contend for All-Big Ten honors after a terrific performance in the Outback Bowl against Florida. Still and Jordan Hill should lock up the middle, but Penn State needs Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore to get healthy at the end spots. If not, the Lions will turn to unproven players to spark their pass rush.
9. Illinois: Liuget is a significant loss in the middle and Illinois also must replace veteran end Clay Nurse. The Illini will rely on Akeem Spence to step in for Liuget, and Spence showed some good things this spring. There's talent on the edges with Michael Buchanan, Whitney Mercilus and others, but Illinois needs more consistent production.
10. Northwestern: This group took a step back last fall and got manhandled down the stretch as Northwestern hemorrhaged yards and points. Senior end Vince Browne is a playmaker who put up impressive numbers (15.5 TFLs, 7 sacks) in 2010. He'll need help from tackles Jack DiNardo and Niko Mafuli, and Tyler Scott could provide a lift at the other end spot. The Wildcats need their line to regain the edge it displayed in 2008.
11. Indiana: It wouldn't surprise me to see Indiana's front four rise up these rankings during the season. There are some nice pieces back, namely senior end Darius Johnson, who can be a force when healthy. Junior Adam Replogle has been productive at defensive tackle. There's plenty of competition at the other two spots as Indiana tries to turn a page on defense.
12. Minnesota: The Gophers' pass rush was practically invisible in 2010, as they finished last nationally in sacks (9). The good news is new defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will turn his linemen loose more often, giving players like Brandon Kirksey chances to make plays. We've heard a lot about Minnesota's talent up front but haven't seen nearly enough production on Saturdays.
The most damning part of Sports Illustrated's investigation into Tressel and the Ohio State program is the allegation that memorabilia sold for money and tattoos wasn't confined to the so-called "Tat-5" -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor, running back Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, left tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas -- who have been suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season. The SI report names at least 28 players who allegedly traded memorabilia or autographs for money and tattoos since 2002, including nine players on the current roster.
Several of those listed are expected to play significant roles this season, most notably Simon and Williams, returning starters on the defensive line. Sabino and Klein are in the mix at linebacker, while Berry competed for the top running back spot this spring.
From the SI piece:
Ohio State's conclusion that only six players broke the rules is based in part on a list of the items the Department of Justice seized in raids of Fine Line Ink and [Edward] Rife's home on May 1, 2010. But that list, which mentioned 42 football-related items that Rife bought, received or acquired in trades from players, covered only a small fraction of what he got from the Buckeyes, Ellis says. "Eddie had storage units all over town," he says, "and he also sold some stuff off to people." (Through Palmer, his lawyer, Rife declined to comment on his involvement with Ohio State players.) Ellis estimates that Pryor alone brought in more than 20 items, including game-worn shoulder pads, multiple helmets, Nike cleats, jerseys, game pants and more. One day Ellis asked Pryor how he was able to take so much gear from the university's equipment room. Ellis says the quarterback responded, "I get whatever I want."
Expect Ohio State and/or the NCAA to investigate these allegations. If the current players are found to have violated extra-benefit rules, they could face significant suspensions for the 2011 season.
Couple this with the new NCAA/Ohio State probe into Pryor and allegations he received cars and other extra benefits, and Ohio State's depth chart could be a mess heading into the 2011 season.
Other key points from the SI report:
- Writers George Dohrmann and David Epstein paint the memorabilia sales among players as a systematic problem at Ohio State. It certainly calls into question athletic director Gene Smith's claim that the sales involving Pryor and the others were isolated. Ohio State's brief investigation into the memorabilia sales in December also looks shaky. The number of players alleged to have violated NCAA rules at two separate tattoo parlors, along with the time span in which these infractions possibly occurred, has to be unsettling. Former Ohio State player Rob Rose told SI that he traded memorabilia items for tattoos, as did 20 other players. With Tressel gone, much of the focus turns to Smith and Ohio State's compliance department. This report doesn't help them.
- One element of the story that already is generating attention is the anecdote from a former colleague of Tressel's on Earle Bruce's staff at Ohio State. The former Buckeyes coach, who served with Tressel on Bruce's staff during the 1980s and asked to remain anonymous, told SI that Tressel rigged raffles at Ohio State's football camps so that elite prospects would win, a violation of NCAA rules. "In the morning he would read the Bible with another coach," the coach told SI. "Then, in the afternoon, he would go out and cheat kids who had probably saved up money from mowing lawns to buy those raffle tickets. That's Jim Tressel." If true, this is really creepy and disappointing.
- The report also reviews Tressel's claims that he knew nothing about NCAA violations involving his players at both Youngstown State and at Ohio State. Those unaware of these aspects of Tressel's track record can get an education from this piece.
So there you have it. Quite a day in Columbus, and not much of a holiday for those of us covering the story.
We'll have much more on the fallout from Tressel's resignation and what's next for Ohio State on Tuesday, so be sure and check in early and often.