And then there is the defensive line. The group, led by new coach Larry Johnson Sr., comes in at the top of the list in Steele’s position rankings. Anchored by senior defensive tackle Michael Bennett, junior defensive end Noah Spence, junior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington and sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa, the Buckeyes figure to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines with four returning starters back from an incredibly successful 2013 campaign.
“They’re the best defensive line in the country,” Steele told BuckeyeSports.com. “You look at the studs they have up front – Spence, Washington, Bennett and Bosa – and you look at the depth they have. Losing Jamal Marcus was tough in the offseason, but then again, they’ve got players that will be able to fill in there. They’ve got the depth to rotate and keep the players fresh, they’ve got dynamic, impact players and while last year’s defensive line was so young, now they’re much more mature. A lot of time you talk to coaches and they tell you the second year is the year a player really blossoms.
“I’ve got their defensive line ranked ahead of all the SEC defensive lines this year. They’re that good.”
That quartet alone accounted for 24.5 of Ohio State’s 42 sacks last season. This fall, they’ll have help, too. Even with the loss of Marcus and Tracy Sprinkle, the depth is almost comical. Tyquan Lewis, Steve Miller, Tommy Schutt, Rashad Frazier, Chris Carter, Michael Hill and Donovan Munger line the roster, along with incoming four-star freshman Jalyn Holmes and three-stars Darius Slade and Dylan Thompson.
With a cast like that, a handful of players figure to get left out, but it’s perhaps less likely this year that the four players with the most starts in the trenches will account for more than 50 percent of Ohio State’s sacks like the 2013 group.
Johnson has stated that he plans on rotating up to eight or nine players at defensive line throughout the game, aiming for the most productive players to have closer to 50 snaps per game than 80.
“The game has changed,” Johnson said during spring practice. “You talk about spread offense, quick snaps, quick balls, getting out of there, that number can go from 65 to 90 (plays per game) pretty quick. You add that times 12 games, one guy doing that, that’s a lot of football. What I want to do is play fresh. I want to play eight, nine guys every time. That way you can play as hard as you can every snap, and that’s how you play defense.”
The stat lines of individual players may take a slight dip, but Steele expects Johnson’s approach to be an improvement for the Buckeyes.
“It’ll probably knock off some of the stats from the starters simply because if you’re playing less snaps, your individual stats will go down,” he said. “I’ve talked to a lot of coaches who will tell me about a player who is fantastic for the first 40 or 50 snaps he plays but when he gets into snap 60 or 70 he’s not as good a player. I expect the overall production of the line to improve, even though individual stats may drop off a little.”
Aside from the obvious benefit of owning a dominant defensive line, the presence of players like Bennett and Bosa should help prepare an inexperienced offensive line that returns just one starter in junior left tackle Taylor Decker.
“Every single day at practice, these guys are working against the best defensive line in college football,” Steele said. “I think Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington, Michael Bennett and Joey Bosa are the best group out there. Well, guess what? When these guys take the field on Saturdays, they’re taking a step down in level of competition, which is a good thing.”