D-line gets A for depth

Vrabel has hands full finding time for talented frosh behind starters

Updated: August 29, 2012, 6:00 PM ET
By Austin Ward | BuckeyeNation

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The starting job comes with more than a right to the first snap of the game.

As long as his defensive linemen don't get tired, Ohio State assistant Mike Vrabel would be more than happy to let his top group play every single down that came after it as well.

[+] EnlargeJohn Simon
Phil Sears/US PresswireJohn Simon led the Buckeyes defense with 16 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2011.
Perhaps that's not realistic, though it's a reflection of the professional approach Vrabel is accustomed to and part of the high standards he has set with the Buckeyes up front. But no matter how well-conditioned the first unit is this fall, Vrabel might not have a choice but to expand his rotation as a handful of young guns blend with the established veterans to form one of the most talented lines in the nation.

"We're going to play the best players," Vrabel said. "If I think I have four really good guys and they don't get tired, they'll play the whole game. That's what I'm used to. In the game that I came from, the best players play.

"If you don't get tired, you play the whole game. If we have guys that get tired, we'll rest guys and we'll play. But the best guys will be out there."

Even if the Buckeyes double the number of those guys to eight, that still might leave a potential contributor on the sideline given the influx of talent that complements a proven bunch of starters.

The roles of senior end John Simon and junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins are clear, and expectations are enormous for both. Nose tackle Garrett Goebel has impressed both his teammates and the coaching staff with his leadership and willingness to take on thankless jobs on the interior, and sophomore Michael Bennett emerged as a player too talented to exclude on the first down of the game.

But there are three talented true freshmen from a decorated signing class on the two-deep banging on the door and a pair of nose tackles who have earned praise for their own affinity for dirty work. That group alone would push defensive coordinator Luke Fickell past what he suggested in training camp would be an eight-man rotation. "I think the biggest thing is, we know we're going to play those [freshmen]," Fickell said. "At some point in time, we've got to figure out how much.

"I think they've shown they have the opportunity to get out there. How much they retain is what we have to see."

The first chance to evaluate in a truly live scenario finally arrives on Saturday against Miami (Ohio), and the desire to see Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt in action could be enough to keep Vrabel from his ideal goal of a sub-less lineup.

At the same time, the starters are also aware that there is a reward for being in shape and maintaining a high level of play. And they're not exactly planning on watching someone else on defense while standing next to a position coach.

"I never go into a game thinking I'm going to need a break or anything," Goebel said. "We want to put our team in the best position to win, and if some backup guys can go in and perform at a great level, the same level as the starters, then obviously it's great to have those guys in.

"We've got some good backups, a lot of younger guys, and some good depth."

So even while he might prefer otherwise, Vrabel obviously isn't going to complain about having too many good players.

Austin Ward | email

Ohio State/Big Ten reporter