Weeks of rumblings came to fruition Monday when Jamal Marcus’ fate became known. The junior defensive end started – and excelled – in the Orange Bowl in place of the suspended Noah Spence. He had six tackles and a crucial pass breakup, with many believing it to be a precursor for 2014.
But the 6-foot-1, 243-pound Marcus spent portions of spring practice working with the third team and stopped practicing altogether after academic issues arose in April. Steve Miller and Tyquan Lewis took a bulk of his snaps. Questions galore surround the vacant spot left by Spence, who’s suspended the first two games of the season.
Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington leave no doubt about the other three starters. It appears Miller, Lewis and Rashad Frazier are destined to compete for the two-game audition once fall camp commences. Three true freshman defensive ends – Jalyn Holmes, Dylan Thompson and Darius Slade – join the team this summer.
Lewis becomes the most intriguing subject now. He received rave reviews from teammates and coaches during bowl preparation and spring practice. A North Carolina native, like Marcus, Lewis possesses a nearly identical frame to his Tar Heel State companion – 6-foot-2, 240 pounds.
As the line’s elder statesman, Bennett sits back and observes the unit. What he’s seen the past six months is gradual improvement in Lewis, from raw rookie to havoc-inducing redshirt freshman.
The other end of the spectrum is covered by Miller, a senior who’s stuck around when playing time wasn’t always evident. Last season, he had three sacks and six tackles for loss, providing proof that he can morph into a reliable member of the defense, not just a body in practice.
Line depth is paramount in college football, and Ohio State’s first two games present different challenges. In the opener, the Buckeyes are tasked with Navy’s vaunted ground game and cut blocks. Ohio State faces Virginia Tech and its up-and-coming tailback Trey Edmunds the following week. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is adamant in creating an eight- or nine-man rotation.
“There’s not a first group, there’s not a second group. There’s a group of guys trying to get better,” Johnson said. “I’ve sold them on the idea that there are going to be eight or nine guys. The game has changed. You’re talking about spread offense, quick snaps, so that number of plays can go from 65 to 90 really quick. You add that times 12 games, that’s a lot of football.
“What I want to do is play fresh. I want to play eight or nine guys every time and be relentless. That way every guy can play as hard as they can every play. That's how you play defense.”
Marcus was vying to be part of that robust rotation. He came to Ohio State as a defensive end, switched to linebacker and then moved back to his natural position. Pass rushing was his forte and he was a contributor on special teams. Marcus had sacks last season against San Diego State and Northwestern, part of his 21-tackle total.
Glimpses of promise as a backup and positive play in the Orange Bowl didn’t guarantee Marcus anything, though. Praise and stable playing time is earned in practice. One bad day can spell doom for players attempting to be noticed for the right reasons.
“There’s just a lot of competition up there with those guys,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said in the spring. “It’s probably, in my opinion, of the teams I've been on, the most guys up front that can actually play. There’s extreme competition. You’re going to have to be pretty good to get in that rotation.”
Ohio State is now at 82 scholarships, the number required due to NCAA sanctions. The 2014 season is the last in which the Buckeyes are hamstrung and docked three scholarships.
They also hope it’s the final time Memorial Day brings bad news.