Many thought Navy's triple-option offense would be an early test for Ohio State's defensive line. As it turns out, the unit is having a tough time overcoming the summer of 2014.
Ohio State's staff already had to compensate for the loss of Noah Spence in the Orange Bowl after he tested positive for trace amounts of Ecstasy in his system. Jamal Marcus, who performed well in spot duty throughout the season, proved to be a capable replacement for one game. He couldn't prevent Clemson's Sammy Watkins from having free reign on every ball thrown his way, but Marcus did bat down a pass, recorded six tackles and was a consistent force in run support.
Combined with his performance in the Orange Bowl and the carryover from Spence's suspension for the first two games of this season, Buckeye coaches had to feel confident in Marcus' ability to step into the lineup and become a significant contributor in the defensive line rotation.
Establishing that deep rotation was among Larry Johnson's first tasks upon arriving in Columbus.
"I’ve sold them on the idea that there are going to be eight or nine guys," Johnson said, during spring practice. "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.”
Strangely, despite this emphasis on increasing roles of backup defensive linemen, Marcus was a non-factor in spring practice. Steve Miller and Tyquan Lewis assumed most of his snaps. Eventually, we learned about the academic issues, which led to his departure.
Marcus' dismissal and his subsequent transfer to Akron left some question marks as to whom will replace Spence for the Navy and Virginia Tech games. Redshirt freshman Tracy Sprinkle wasn't necessarily thought to be a part of the mix, but his recent arrest and dismissal makes that unlikely. For his sake, the hope is he's cleared on all charges, which can lead to his return to the team. Based on Urban Meyer's methods of discipline since he arrived at Ohio State, Sprinkle would face a tough battle to earn respect back, assuming Sprinkle is completely innocent – because, if you remember, Meyer takes public urination rather seriously.
With the Buckeyes closing in on the beginning of fall camp, they'll move forward as if Sprinkle isn't a part of the roster. Beyond the experienced starters – Spence, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Adolphus Washington – OSU still has a wealth of talented, yet youthful group of linemen. Redshirt senior Rashad Frazier hasn't seen many in-game snaps, but he'll compete for Spence's fill-in.
Meanwhile, the staff's focus on adding depth in their last recruiting class appears to be a wise one. Freshmen Jalyn Holmes, Dylan Thompson and Darius Slade will be thrust into competition. Another misstep from someone ahead of them and they could be forced to take meaningful snaps.
For now, there's no reason to be overly worried about how the defensive line depth chart will shake out. Increasingly, however, Johnson and the staff's ideal scenario and ability to rotate several guys in seems to be in doubt.