When Ohio State lumbered off the perfectly manicured turf at Sun Life Stadium in January, 10 starters entered – and exited – the locker room one final time. Lost was not only production, but also leadership.
Jack Mewhort, Corey Linsley, Ryan Shazier and others were motivating figures whose voices resonated in the locker room. At the dawn of a new season, leaders are beginning to emerge. Head coach Urban Meyer already said senior tight end Jeff Heuerman will be a captain come fall, ending any suspense regarding his status.
But Ohio State isn’t a single-man operation. It doesn’t take a village to lead the Buckeyes, though strength in numbers isn’t frowned upon. Inevitably joining Heuerman at midfield for coin tosses will be Michael Bennett. The senior defensive lineman enters his senior season as a three-year starter and strong vocal presence.
“He’s a great leader. I think our players respect him as a leader,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said. “When he opens his mouth, guys are listening to him. That’s the kind of leadership you want. I’ve been very impressed with Mike’s leadership skills on the field and off the field. He’s a great student, and we’re looking for great things from him. He’s a senior, he knows he’s a guy that’s got to move it forward. We talk about moving a yardstick, and I think Mike’s doing a great job moving forward. He’s doing a great job for us as a group.”
So it might come as a mystery when people learn he’ll be on the field less this season. Bennett played upwards of 90 snaps in some games last season. Johnson would like to trim as many as 40 plays off starting linemen’s motors. Keeping the front four lively is the top objective.
Said Bennett: “You have to be less selfish, and you’ve got to know the guy in there is going to make plays.”
Johnson sees depth as a built-in advantage. If the Buckeyes can put four fresh defensive linemen on the field in the fourth quarter, they’ll benefit in an area where the opposing offense might not be as fortunate.
Some players’ egos might get in the way, fearing a dip in tackles could lessen their draft stock. Bennett is not one of those players. He takes football seriously, but he also displays an eccentric personality that comes out on Twitter. Bennett’s ugly Christmas sweaters went viral last holiday season, and obscure musings attract laughs from followers.
Merry Christmas ladies and gentlemen. From the strangest house in Columbus. pic.twitter.com/12OqmRqeYv— Not Mike Bennett (@mike63bennett) December 19, 2013
He’s currently projected as the top defensive tackle prospect by CBS Sports. Whether he plays 40 snaps or 75 snaps per game, Bennett vows to go 100 percent on every play and demonstrate his superior skill set.
“You can’t play 70 plays at full speed,” Johnson said. “Players like to say they can, but that’s not going to happen. You can play 40 or 50 plays full speed and get guys to come play 20 plays full speed, and that’s what we like to do.”
It’s a departure from Mike Vrabel’s style which simply focused on getting the best players on the field at all times. Bennett has zero qualms with the changed philosophy, and he’s eager to lead.
“If I’m a captain, that’d be great just because it means guys trust me and look up to me. But if I’m not a captain it means I went wrong somewhere,” Bennett said. “So if anything, it’d be a good check to see if I’m on the right track.”
Just tried to text my little sister "noooopppeee" and it autocorrected to "nipples"... Talk about an awkward text.— Not Mike Bennett (@mike63bennett) January 1, 2014
On the field, there’s little mystery to Bennett’s trajectory. He turned heads as a freshman and has continued doing so the past two seasons. Bennett finished with seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss last year. He’ll find himself at nose guard this season next to Adolphus Washington, who’s moved to the interior. The position changes were done after a long thought process.
“The guys are really adapted and changed,” Bennett said. “I don’t know if you guys could notice [in practice], but we were getting after the ball, running to the ballcarrier and stuff like that. I’m really excited with where we’re going to be. We’re a lot better than we were last spring.”
Speed is an important factor in determining who will be on the inside. Johnson covets quickness more than size. When piecing together an aggressive unit, ignoring speed is a bridge to nowhere.
“We want to be a penetrating defense, attacking the ball,” Johnson said. “With all the spread teams, guys are like, ‘Oh he’s only 295.’ Well, that’s good enough. You have a 320-pounder get caught on a 15-play drive, that’s pretty tough. So I like to play the quickness and Mike brings that to the table.”
If you don't think David Blaine uses real magic then you can't be my friend. He's a Wizard. Thank your lucky stars he spares us— Not Mike Bennett (@mike63bennett) January 9, 2014
Coach and player have meshed well. Bennett’s a go-getter that feeds off Johnson’s energetic temperament. Playing through the whistle, four to six seconds and point A to point B is second nature for the veteran. The Buckeyes’ offseason conditioning combined with relentlessness in practice should rapidly shape the team’s depth.
In the leadership arena, Bennett’s legend continues to grow, as Meyer said last fall. Bennett is part jester, part serious. The nondescript look on his face has earned him the nickname “angry.” But in truth, he’s a steadying force whose value is boundless.
“A no-name guy who’s become a good leader,” Meyer said.