Doubling Down on Defensive Line Dominance

By Nicholas Jervey on July 12, 2014 at 6:00a
Michael Bennett needs about a dozen of these to be a first team All-American.

Kirk Irwin Photography

26 Comments

It's safe to say that Ohio State's defensive line talent is near an all-time high. Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa, Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, Ohio State's starting line, have a combined 19 recruiting stars between them, and the other linemen in the rotation are nearly as decorated. The line is constructed to win awards, and if all goes well several Buckeyes are good enough to earn national recognition.

Michael Bennett, for instance, was named a preseason All-American by Athlon, and Joey Bosa was named to the freshman All-American team by two outlets. Spence led the line in tackles, and Washington was no slouch. How such a talented cadre could finish 96th in Adjusted Line Yards is a mystery.

Bennett might not care for preseason honors, but this year's defensive line can assert itself by producing a consensus All-American. Though award voters might not give defenders the same credit as offensive players, at least they're more careful about rewarding statistics and not narrative.

I think the Ohio State defensive line could produce a consensus all-American, but rather than trying to project that player's numbers I want to create a workaround. Assuming that the Buckeyes want one of their defensive linemen to be an All-American, what benchmarks will he need to hit for consideration?

GOING FOR TWO

Not since 2011 have a pair of teammates been All-Americans from the same position grouping (Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, LSU), and not since 1997 has one team produced two consensus All-American defensive linemen (Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom, Nebraska).

New defensive line coach Larry Johnson plans to rotate players more often, which will keep the players fresher but give the starters fewer snaps. In our wildest dreams the Buckeyes could land two linemen on the all-America team, but let's not get irrational.

BASELINE STATISTICS

Let's see what stats we're working with. First up, Michael Bennett, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence, whose 2013 numbers put them in consideration for 2014 honors:

  TACKLES TFLs SACKS PBU INTS FF FR
MICHAEL BENNETT 42 11.5 7.0 -- -- 3 2
JOEY BOSA 44 13.5 7.5 1 -- -- 1
NOAH SPENCE 52 14.5 8.0 2 -- 1 1
AVERAGE 46 13.2 7.5 1 1.3 1.3

The numbers for Bennett, Bosa and Spence are remarkably similar. Of course Michael Bennett is the guy everyone thinks is poised for a breakout season, but might Noah Spence be better? He hasn't gotten much attention for a five-star recruit, especially not one that led the defensive line in tackles, TFLs and sacks as a sophomore. With normal offensive formations and Bennett on the inside, Spence will be able to speed rush to his heart's content.

Partway through last season, I wrote that Joey Bosa was on pace for the best freshman defensive line performance in OSU history. At the time, he was on pace for 37 tackles, nine TFLs and four sacks; he only improved after that. If he is recovered from the knee injuries that slowed him down toward the end of 2013, he has even more room for growth as a sophomore.

Their competition is the 2013 All-American defensive line: Michael Sam (Missouri), Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh), Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas) and Vic Beasley (Clemson). These four were pretty productive!

  TACKLES TFLs SACKS PBU INTS FF FR
MICHAEL SAM 48 19.0 11.5 2 -- 2 --
AARON DONALD 59 28.5 11.0 3 -- 4 --
JACKSON JEFFCOAT 82 19.0 13.0 4 1 2 --
VIC BEASLEY 41 23.0 13.0 6 -- 4 1
AVERAGE 57.5 22.4 12.1 3.75 0.25 3 0.25

As good as Bennett, Bosa and Spence were, the consensus All-Americans were better across the board. The Buckeyes would each have to nab 10 more TFLs, 3.5 sacks and a couple more pass breakups and forced fumbles to have All-American stats.

What's odd about the four All-American linemen is their differing NFL value. Sam was picked in the seventh round, nearly undrafted, while Beasley is a future first-rounder. Aaron Donald was a top-5 pick, while Jackson Jeffcoat went undrafted. Mark it as evidence that you don't need to be a first round draft pick to be a great college player, even if it helps.

PACING

Defensive linemen never win the Heisman Trophy. Instead, they have an assortment of individual awards: the Outland Trophy, the Bednarik Award and the Lombardi Award. To be all-Americans, OSU's linemen can't just rack up sacks and force fumbles; they have to be award semifinalists.

Most five-stars are hyped without end. Not Noah Spence.
Will Spence capture All-American honors...

Preseason award watchlists are useless, but halfway into the season that they start to matter. To win one of the awards, a player first has to be named an award semifinalist and then a finalist.

All four members of 2013's All-American defensive line were award semifinalists; you have to go back several years to find someone who wasn't. The Buckeye linemen don't have to peak early, but they have to be good enough through their first eight games that a late surge would keep them in the running.

To rack up those stats, OSU's linemen need to be on the field often enough to make an impact. By one estimate Michael Sam played 58% of his team's snaps; and that's on the low end. Aaron Donald had the highest snap percentage of any lineman in the 2014 Draft, so there's the other extreme.

Let's make the case easier and say Ohio State's best-performing lineman needs to play 65% of all defensive snaps to be in the running. The Buckeyes defended exactly 1000 plays in 2013; across 14 games, that's 71 plays a game, and at a 65% rate that's 43-46 plays a game they'd be on the field.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is well known for rotating his players; will Bennett, Bosa and Spence play often enough to merit consideration?

THE MARKETING MACHINE

It's November, and several OSU linemen are in the conversation for best defensive player in the country. Now they need some creative power behind them. Now is when they need OSU to deliver on their creative wizardry.

At the very least he's entertaining on and off the field.
...or will Bosa pull it off as a sophomore?

Sammy Silverman's efforts for Ohio State's recruiting are famous. AP voters aren't as susceptible to slick graphics and funny videos as recruits, but why not try anyway? Did anybody really take offense when Orlando Pace donned a chef's hat and lectured Heisman voters about how to make pancakes?

A spoof commercial where Bennett, Spence and Bosa are all making sack lunches might be too cheesy, but rest assured Ohio State is going to think of something.

Being an All-American isn't just about making an impact, it's about being consistent early in the year and playing even better down the stretch. If the Buckeyes have the first killer defense of the Meyer Era, one or two linemen should be in position for those national honors.

26 Comments

Comments

Killer nuts's picture

If we have two all American defensive linemen then this is going to be a heck of a year

+1 HS
mb5599's picture

Unfortunately, can't see them awarding Spence All-American status due to his 2 game suspension unless he has a legendary season and smashes records.  I can see Bosa, Bennett, and maybe Washington if he leaves the motor running all the time he is in there.  With Coach Johnson rotating the line so everyone is fresher, no reason to be taking any plays off.

Big B

+2 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I guess my concern is about Washington. He showed so much promise his first year but we didn't see much from him last year. 

Read my entire screen name....

Him1stftballl8er's picture

Injury bug..

The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the promotion of fools. 

+2 HS
Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

I realize this and I probably should have went into more detail. When you're hurt you don't play and you don't develop. Washington could be the most talented prospect in the world but if he can't avoid the injury bug and the wear and tear of the season then he's not able to contribute to the defense to the fullest extent.  

Read my entire screen name....

BroJim's picture

Let's just hope everyone stays healthy.

I season my simple food with hunger

+4 HS
JohnnyKozmo's picture

I think while they may see less plays in total, they will be fresher, which should theoretically lead to more production.

rock flag and eagle's picture

The "mystery" of the ADJ Line Yard rank is that the stat is adjusted for the strength of the opponent.  That's why OSU's rush D had great numbers on the surface, but ended up ranked 96th.  It's because they played 13 FBS opponents in 2013 and 11 of them were in the bottom 50% of rushing offenses in yards/carry.  Purdue, Cal, Michigan, Buffalo, Northwestern and Illinois were among the very very worst in the country (all ranked 80th or below).  The only two above average rush offenses (measured by yards/carry) they played last season were Indiana and Wisconsin.  The Football Study Hall ranking is basically saying "despite their excellent performance on mainstream metrics like total rushing yards allowed, we have to rank them this low because their opponents were so bad at running the ball."
 

CGroverL's picture

Yeah....and since they gave up 300 passing yards here and there, overall the look was that the Buckeye defense was weak. I'll understand that garbage when someone finally explains to me how strength of schedule actually works. Strength of schedule is garbage and has only true opinions to back up the claims of who's schedule is really the hardest. There is definitely a reason why a certain knucklehead gets paid year after year to give us his PRESEASON strength of schedule "predictions", which obviously HAVE TO CHANGE as the season is played. In 2009, Ohio State became the first and ONLY team to beat FIVE teams that finished up with 10 or more wins. I wonder where Mr. Sagarin had the Buckeyes' strength of schedule at the preseason, midseason, and end of year marks?

Of course, winning has nothing to do with strength of schedule EXCEPT for the fact that winning hurts your opponents records which sort of defeats the purpose of having a strength of schedule because if you lost all of your games, your strength of schedule would be much better, would it not?

Back on the subject though, I believe that we will see a Buckeye pass defense in the top 10 this season. Like the 1985 Chicago Bears, their front 4 with one great LB, had an awesome secondary...but I'm sure that same secondary would have been a lot less by the stats if it weren't for the Bears' front four. I see a Buckeye defense like that this season...minus the 46 defense, of course.

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

SilverBullet-98's picture

Man, I can't wait for the season to start!!!

I have not been this excited since last year, lol. :)

I can't wait to see Ash/Larry Johnson and Fickell's LB's perform under this new defensive scheme.

Really feel optimistic about the 2014-2015 OHIO STATE BUCKEYES.  Just can't wait !!!!!

"The Past Builds the Future"

hetuck's picture

The D-line will benefit tremendously from the new defensive scheme. Why? Because if press coverage takes away the short passes, QBs will go for the streak. That means the QB will hold on to the ball longer; hence, more sack/strip opportunities. Better the risk of a rare bomb than the certainty of a death of a thousand bubble screen cuts a la the Orange Bowl. Now if Ash/Coombs teach the corners to turn and go for the ball, it'll be a win/win. 

Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

Vince Lombardi

+2 HS
Crimson's picture

I'm actually fine with death of a thousand bubble screen cuts, as long as the defense is triggering fast.  However, they didn't, and I don't want to see that outcome again.  FWIW, Ash will also give you the bubble, but his guys will be there tackling a lot faster.

cinserious's picture

nd not since 1997 has one team produced two consensus All-American defensive linemen (Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom, Nebraska).

At least it was a B1G team that most recently produced two AA defensive linemen. Even the vaunted SEC lines of late can't boast that! Yeah, and we even spelled Big Ten like that too! 

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

+1 HS
whiskeyjuice's picture

Another factor on why the D-line should excel would be that our secondary's tight coverage on the receivers. If the DB's jam and cover the receivers better, that gives the D-line a little more time to wreck havoc on the backfield.

And just to throw it out there, I have a strong feeling the LB's will perform better this year. Josh Perry grew up fast last season! And if Grant doesn't finally break out, Kwon looks extremely hungry!

"You'll find out that nothing that comes easy is worth a dime. As a matter of fact, I never saw a football player make a tackle with a smile on his face." -- Wayne Woodrow Hayes

+1 HS
Crimson's picture

I don't have a lot of confidence in the LBs right now.  I know we have a lot of potential, and we have numbers coming in (and should keep bringing in a lot of guys), but I don't know who's going to step up to all B1G level.  I just hope it's at least 2 guys.

whobdis's picture

I think your question as to whether Spence may be better is valid..can't remember it being so quiet over the guy who leads the team in sacks.The guy has AA skills though his suspension won't help. Another guy I'm anxious to watch is Michael Hill..I remember the olineman last year talking about how tough it was to block him. Probably won't be a sack guy but another disruptive type lineman is a good thing.

hit_the_couch's picture

There's too many outlets that have all-american lists. It's getting as bad as how many MNC citing bodies there were. I hope they clean it up so it's easier to know which is official. Right now, the only one I know to take serious is the AP (and I can't stand the writers).

I hope the whole damn D is AA.

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

Poison nuts's picture

If the offense can maintain production that's similar to last year, and the defense lives up to what it's potential is, this could be an incredible team to watch. I was very eager about last year's team, but I think this years version has even more potential. My concerns are with the O Line. I think RBs & WR will be fine & have faith that WRs will be good too. If the OLine is strong, records will be broken & a playoff berth is on deck.

"Death created time to grow the things that it would kill" - Detective Rustin Cohle.

CGroverL's picture

I just wanted to give a few helmet stickers to the writer if I could. Showing how dominant the Buckeye defensive line was, then comparing it to the All-American teams and showing how their seasons actually panned out was a great insight to how football, by the stats, just doesn't work out sometimes. Great article and almost shocking numbers and research. That is why THIS PLACE is the best place for Buckeye news. Go Bucks!

"I hope they're last in everything"

Thanks, Urb!

TraptnMI's picture

I believe Bennet was recruited as an OG. Did he play some D in H.S.?  Maybe a piece on successful transitional players on the line of scrimmage and the players that had the talent but were unable to flourish after the switch?

" It's real good whatcha done Anthony, real good ! "

kareemabduljacobb's picture

Bold Prediction:  We'll have 3 different guys this season with 10+ sacks.  Hopefully... anyway.

Nutinpa's picture

While my opinion in this Forum is in the minority, count me as being from "Missouri" ...meaning Noah Spence will have to "show me" he is worthy of all conference and all-america honors.  Yes, Larry Johnson can or will make him more of a complete DE, but until now, I have considered (others have as well...they're just not as vocal) Spence a 1-trick pony as a pass rusher.  As a run stopper.....he is soft.  Teams were already opting to run at him vs. Bosa or it seemed that way.  He stuck to blockers like velcro and was simply not someone you worried about.  If he becomes the complete DE he is capable of...then let the accolades come to him....and this will be a sick D line. 

Until then...and IMHO...he is a distant 2nd to Bosa as a guy to game plan around. If Jamal Marcus had been a scholar athlete, Spence would have had some real ground to make up in week 3 of the coming season. 

allinosu's picture

Usually a double team on a good defensive lineman could fix a problem but what do you do with four?

GVerrilli92's picture

That's the beautiful thing about having so much talented depth on the DLine. If there is a hole on the opposing OLine, we will be able to expose it every play.

How many cheeseburgers are you gunna drive into that dirty old cheeseburger locker Brady Hoke?

Crimson's picture

They could block their own players instead of ours.  I've heard some teams are working on this already.

BrewstersMillions's picture

As much as football adapts from one trend to the next, few things can be as impactful as a dominant front 4. If you can consistently pressure without blitzing and hold stout against the run in a 4 vs. 5 situation, your back 7 has a real easy job. This year has all the makings of one of the most dominating fronts in recent memory. Bosa and Bennett are going to be terrors, simple as that. Bennett is a double team every down type of guy-I'll venture a guess he's among the most DT'd players in the nation. With Bosa's versatility, it creates nightmare matchups. Add Spence's ability to come screaming off the edge and you have one hell of a start. The talent on the defensive front is too plentiful to mention all of it. Opposing offenses are in for a long season with the size, speed, depth, and strength this unit is going to have. They will need to be every bit as good as expected while the LB crew gels.

Nothing matters more than a great defensive line. OSU  has it.

Do I come off as arrogant? Shame on me, I was hoping it would more obvious.