High Hopes for Ohio State's Young Defensive Line

By Kyle Rowland on August 22, 2013 at 9:30a
National titles of the Buckeyes' past serve as motivation for Noah Spence.

If you choose to play for Urban Meyer, you know an immediate impact is expected. Over the course of Ohio State’s undefeated 2012 campaign, two freshmen defensive linemen – Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence – seized their early playing time and foreshadowed the Buckeyes’ future.

When Johnathan Hankins opted to leave for the NFL, it signaled an historic change on the line; all four starters were gone. It’s the first time in a generation Ohio State has been saddled with a complete overhaul of one of the sport’s most important units. 

But Mike Vrabel went to work and molded a cast of inexperienced players into a group that’s primed to have a more productive year than their predecessors.

“It’s a lot more go get ’em, a lot more speed and everything like that, so that’s a big difference,” Spence said. “God willing, we’ll be just as good, if not better than last year.”

The bookends at defensive end may be the youngest members of the newly established defensive line, but their importance as the cornerstones is not lost. The youth is a factor in defensive coordinator Luke Fickell’s restless nights. For Washington and Spence, delays in sleep come from the roommates trash talking.

When Spence committed to the Buckeyes, he quickly reached out to Washington on social media to help recruit him to Columbus. From there, the friendship blossomed. As they enter their second season at Ohio State, Spence and Washington have forged a brotherhood.

“Since that first day when he hit me up, we talked almost every day about the future at Ohio State,” Washington said. “Now, we’re actually living out that dream.”

Year 1 saw Washington and Spence combine for 21 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, a forced fumble and a blocked field goal. The duo chides each other about their stats. Spence edged Washington in total tackles last season, but the man they call “Diesel” paced the tackles for loss and sack categories.  

Spring practice marked the time period where coaches realized Washington and Spence could be difference-makers as sophomores. They were nearly unblockable throughout March and April, and that included matchups against returning starters on an offensive line that Meyer calls “the heart and soul” of the team.

Seven sacks in the spring game – four by Washington – served as one giant muscle flex for the dominant defensive ends. And Washington earned bragging rights.

“I didn’t give [Spence] too much grief about that one,” Washington said. “It was what it was. We both went out there and competed and I just happened to get that extra sack.”

Expectations aren’t just heightened for team success, the defensive line is also feeling the brunt of the optimistic outlook. Washington and Spence helped stir matters by accumulating those seven sacks. Asked if that’s a number that can be expected every game, Spence chuckled and said, “I don’t know. Sure, hopefully.”

“The game is won up front, whether it’s the offensive line or defensive line. I can assure you this – these guys are going to rely on each other and have faith in each other.”

The first phone call Meyer made when he became head coach was to Spence. He knew how important it was to get an overpowering defensive end. The five-star from Harrisburg, Pa., fit the bill. 

Spence proved Meyer’s instinct was correct during his rookie season. All Spence did during the offseason was add 25 pounds – he’ll play at 253 in 2013 – to make himself an even more imposing, swift figure. After several months away from the team, Meyer was pleasantly surprised to see the bulked up Spence at the start of fall camp.

“When you tell your coaches to go out and find players, he’s what you go find,” Meyer said. “He’s a very, very talented guy with incredible self-discipline and self-respect. I love Noah Spence.”

There’s constant motivation in the form of Washington and Spence trying to one-up the other. If Washington gets a sack, Spence wants to match him on the next play. They make each other better, which boosts a unit that must perform at a high level all season.

Washington, Spence, Michael Bennett and Joel Hale are far from household names. But come October and November the entirety of Ohio State’s defensive line could be on the tips of tongues from Columbus to Tuscaloosa.

The SEC’s seven consecutive national championships haven’t occurred by accident. Controlling both lines of scrimmage is step one and then infusing it with offensive playmakers and depth at all 22 positions.

“The game is won up front, whether it’s the offensive line or defensive line,” Fickell said. “We’ve got eight or so guys who can roll in there, and we’ve got some young guys with incredible talent. We’re going to put some heat on those guys, as well. I can assure you this – these guys are going to rely on each other and have faith in each other.”

Bennett cited cohesion among the unit as one of its strengths. Until they get on the field in a game in front of 105,000 people, though, it’s hard to tell where the progression and unity resides. The coaches are confident enough that they moved Billy Price and J.T. Moore to other positions.

“I’m concerned all the time,” Fickell said. “There’s a lot of guys that we’re concerned about, and a lot of guys we have high expectations for.”

The players carry those same expectations about themselves. Spence spent the summer doing a reading project. And he may have wished it were a textbook. Instead, it was something even thicker and more complicated to translate – the playbook. It’s allowed Spence to play at a faster pace and utilize his unlimited athleticism. 

“We really like what we’ve seen so far, and the upside is incredible,” Fickell said of the new defensive starters.

“To be honest with you, we were all new last year. We were all new in the spring. We were all new through last fall. At times, that’s hard; at times, it's a great challenge. But the reality is we’re on the same page with one another when we do it all together. And when it comes down to the season time, I think it’s going to come down to a lot smoother transition.”

Fans hope the transition relates to wins, as in going from 12 up to 14. To do so will require one of Meyer’s coaching principles – blending youth with established talent.


Comments Show All Comments

BuckeyeFreak4844's picture

I really love Vrabel and have high expectations for this line and i think they could be really dominate at times this year.

Michigan Sucks!

jdagrava.1's picture

I second your Vrabel comment - great "hire" by UFM (We can truthfully thank Fickell for bringing him in, but you get my drift).  Not only is his an excellent coach/motivator/recruiter, but he is also an Alumni with some Super Bowl rings to show off.
This line has great potential, however I have a little whisper of pessimism in my head steering me towards some doubts.  Big Hank was a space-eater.  He closed off the middle of that line, stuffing running lanes like a champ and allowing the speedier players around him to come in for the kill.  Think Casey Hampton for the Pittsburgh Steelers all of those years.  Not the best stats, but absolutely necessary for the team's run defense.
Meyer's concept or fitness and overall team speed is one of my favorite parts of his system.  However, I struggle to believe that an interior D-lineman under 300 lbs. will be as effective as a big monster like Hankins.  If Spence and Washington are going to be asked to pinch in for run support because our DTs are undersized, you can cut their predicted sack numbers in half.  :o/

"It takes a little something special to be a great player.  What you got in you, we're going to find out.  And if there's a touch of greatness in there, how cool would that be?"

-Urban F. Meyer

BeijingBucks's picture

You forget we have a svelte 340 lb space eater for those goal line stands...

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

buckeyestu's picture

I am anxious to see this defense hit the field. Bring. It. On.

NitroBuck's picture

I'm so stoked I can barely stand it!  Only 9 more days.  I hope the "looks test" is accurate, and the new D-Line dominates.

Ferio.  Tego.

Dayton Buckeye's picture

I think we lost some special D lineman off last years team. I do not think this group will preform better than last years group.  I think they have the potential to be better as they gain experience. I just think we should be patient with our expectations for our D line.

yrro's picture

I wouldn't be surprised if they were better against the pass, but weaker against the run. Our D-line was a force against the run when the linebackers actually did their part, but we didn't have the real speed for pass rushing.

droessl's picture

If we can get good pressure from the outside and force everything up the middle, I would think it could make for easier responsibilities for the young linebacking corps. 

THEBEAROSU's picture

We don't want the linebackers worrying about run.up the middle. We need the d-line to be able to handle that. Lack of size in the middle will be a weakness in the big offenses. If they rub in the middle it opens up the entire  field of play. A wait and see drama unfolding. GO BUCKS.


ibuck's picture

The uncertainty about the Buckeye defense makes me wonder about those expecting a MNC this year. Though rankings & expectations are often based on offensive prowess, it's great defense that wins championships. Witness OSU's last several national championships. With 7-8 new defensive starters, reports of this year's offense shredding the defense in scrimmages, and Fickell's admitted inability to sleep, I'm taking a wait and see attitude about this year. Is the offense really that good, or is the D a bit below Ohio State standards? This team has to show me before I get giddy about a B1G championship or more. Getting W's the first 3 games will tell us a lot.

Our honor defend, so we'll fight to the end !

If you can't win your conference, just quietly accept your non-playoff bowl game.


The litmus test will be the Cal game. Our defense holds its own there and then again vs. Wisconsin it's going to be a solid unit. Looking forward to hearing some shoulder pads pop :) Have fun trying to block Diesel, Spence and RDS, Buffalo!

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

InHartWeTrust's picture

I feel Wisc is the first test.  I trust this teams pass rush, it's the run that has a few question marks about it.  Cal doesn't run much, they run a pure "air attack' with their new coach and offensive scheme.  Wisc is the first bull it up the middle team, that IMO will be the real first test.

droessl's picture

I'm truly excited to see Spence and Washington get at it in just 9 days. Not only for their own success, but if the d-line can get the kind of pressure we're all hoping they can, it takes a LOT of pressure off of the linebackers. 

Alpo's picture

Spence and Adolphus are going to be absolute beasts! Just hope it's sooner than later. This season just needs to get here, the suspense is killing me!

Edincostarica's picture

Only 9 more days guys. It can't come fast enough.   


BuckGnome's picture

When Spence committed to the Buckeyes, he quickly reached out to Washington on social media to help recruit him to Columbus.

That part of the article puzzles me, because Washington committed to OSU almost a month before Spence.    In fact, Washington made his announcement on 11/22/2011, saying he chose OSU because he wanted to play for Urban Meyer, about 6 days before Meyer was officially announced as the next head coach of OSU.
Spence didn't commit until Dec. 18th.  

Grayskullsession's picture

Its quite obvious that Noah Spence built a time machine and traveled back in time to recruit Washington to tOSU.

"if irony were made of strawberries, we' d all be drinking a lot of smoothies right now."

skid21's picture

I wondered about that too. Either way what is not to like about that tandem?

BuckGnome's picture

Totally agree, can't wait to watch those two make some QB sandwiches!

Hovenaut's picture

Good stuff.

Defense wins championships, the game is won in the trenches. You better believe a strong front four matters.

There's plenty of heavy hitters among the back seven, but I think much of the end of the year attention will be going to the youngsters up front.

(comes to the realization that I'm officially old, having used 'youngster' in a sentence)

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

Jesus - Noah was unblockable last year - I can't imagine how much more devastating he'll be with 25lbs added, most I assume, is Mariotti muscle!!!  Between him and Washington - there will be some very bad days for opposition offenses.

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Mirror Lake Jump's picture

Crazy they are only sophomores.

Ohio Guy in Jersey's picture

Michael Bennett will never be as big as Johnathan Hankins. Where he can be effective is with speed and activity. He can disrupt blocking schemes. He can cut through gaps. If he does things like that, he'll be fine.

Larryp713's picture

I don't know if it is just me, but Michael Bennett seems to be off the charts smart. I have seen a couple interviews with him, and I follow him on twitter, and it blows me away how deep he is for a 20 year old. I hope he does well this year.



InHartWeTrust's picture

Carter is as big as Hankins, though.  If he continues to progress and come along, he could be a great role player when the duty calls for a big man to clog the middle.
Bosa will be great to line up as a DT with Spence/Diesel during 3rd and long when we run a pass rush front line.

chubby's picture

Call me crazy but I think the very first game will be a good indicator.
They should outclass Buffalo.  We should see sacks, we should see domination.
In the past sometimes it seemed our DEs who should dominate lower talented teams did not get the pressure on the opposing QBs like we all thought they should.
I think this year it changes, I think when Spence and Washington go against someone not on par with their ability they will not play down to their competition they will domiante.
Not saying anything bad about our previous DEs I loved John Simon and Nate Williams, and even before them our others but sometimes when we played an Akron, or Toledo it seemed our DE did not get the pressure we all thought they would.
Again I see Spence and Washington each getting 1-2 sacks versus Buffalo.  I will be surprised if they don't.  I think 4 sacks between them.
3 is my over and under line and I am over with 4.

ChazBuckeye's picture

These guys are going to be the reason OSU wins A LOT of games this year.  After the first B1G game vs Wiscy will put all this young inexperienced stuff to rest IMHO.  Not to mention the slaughtering of the first four teams will prove this as well.  OSU will dominate up front on both sides of the ball.  I'm only worried about Right Tackle on Offense, but if you all remember the mean streak Taylor Decker has, I think we may be just fine there too.  

Some people think we’re the hunted.I don’t feel that way at all.We’re the hunter.Everybody wants an angry football team.Everybody wants a team on edge and a hungry team.If you’re a hunter,that usually equates to being hungry.