CHICAGO – It’s what every player dreams of. Senior year, national championship hopes, individual accolades. But for Michael Bennett, all of it comes with less playing time.
That’s right, the Ohio State defensive lineman will play fewer snaps this season. It’s all part of Larry Johnson’s vision of having the deepest, freshest line in the Big Ten. The longtime Penn State assistant brought his Nittany Lion philosophy, which preaches rotation, to Columbus.
“I love it,” Bennett said Monday at Big Ten Media Days. His answer came equipped with a chuckle.
“I think it’s a great idea. You look at great teams, you see them go far, they’re rotating D-linemen again and again and again. It creates the ability for guys to play 50 snaps at 100 percent, rather than 90 at 60 percent. That’s when you get really disruptive plays. It also allows guys to last longer into the season. My body will be fresher, and I can still play at maximum potential.”
Under Mike Vrabel’s tutelage, the Buckeyes were disrupting. But they also tired as the season progressed. Instead of being eight deep or more – Johnson’s goal – Ohio State only had six reliable defensive linemen. It meant Bennett and others sometimes played 90 snaps a game. Johnson wants that number closer to 50 in 2014.
“You can’t play 70 plays full speed,” Johnson said during spring drills. “You can play 40 or 50 plays full speed and get other guys to come play 20 plays full speed, and that’s what we’d like to do.”
Bennett, who’s slid over to nose guard, is on board, and it’s taught him to be unselfish. Bennett and Joey Bosa admitted there were instances where fatigue bogged down the line last season. Health is also a concern, especially in the gritty Big Ten, where November means heightened aches and pains.
It took all of three games last year for Bennett to get dinged and realize the amount of plays could be an issue as the season progressed. Excuses aren’t his nature, but Bennett was adamant in saying the line was beaten down the final month of the season.
“People don’t understand how bad it was,” he said.
If the defensive line stays healthy in 2014, the amount of production they can achieve soars. The emergence of the line – if you can call it that – is not unexpected.
The unit was overshadowed at times last season by a shaky back seven – vulnerable linebackers and below average secondary. It resulted in 164 points allowed in the season’s final three games. But along the way, Ohio State recorded a Big Ten-best 42 sacks.
The belief among the defensive line is last season was the beginning of large-scale dominance.
“Guys are really starting to understand we can be the best D-line [in the country],” Bennett said. “We have to continue to work for it and not just think we’re the best. We have to prove it every single game.
“We’re going to be aggressive and disruptive. We’re going to shoot through holes and blow everything up in the backfield.”
Establishing depth is project No. 1. Without it, Johnson can’t run the system he wants and the defensive line will face another year of weariness. When games are won in the trenches – a reality coaches touched on throughout Monday’s interviews – being able to trot out new players is an asset.
Ohio State’s expanded on its search for a handful of backups who will provide depth. Candidates were found scattered about the roster, with the summer months serving as a precursor to fall competition.
“It’s difficult, but at Ohio State, we have a good amount of depth,” Bennett said. “Intrinsically, that’s what we want – we recruit a ton of D-linemen, so we have guys to lean back on. Coach Johnson’s had to build up the young guys. A big part is confidence. They have to understand they’re here to play and have the ability to play. We need them to be ready.”
Among the headliners are Tommy Schutt and Donovan Munger.
“Tommy Schutt’s going to be an integral part of our defense,” Bennett said. “He could probably start anywhere else in the country, and he could be a starter here any other year. The kid is extremely athletic, very strong, very smart. He’s pushing me for a position, and I don’t like it. Tommy is right on my heels. It’s good to see him coming up.”
Value in Bennett exists on and off the field. He’s a mercurial thinker who almost went to Northwestern on a pre-med track. Bennett enjoys watching documentaries in his spare time – sometimes for eight hours a day – and annoying his roommates. His sharp wit and intelligence is often found in his Twitter posts. His profile uses a Russian/Canadian translation: Mikail Benoit, an alter ego of sorts.
It’s a nickname given to Bennett from strength coach Mickey Marotti. Bennett said he needed something other than NotMikeBennett. Problem solved.
On the field, he’s anything but anonymous. Bennett is a pre-season All-American and rated as one of the top defensive tackle prospects for next May’s NFL Draft. He’s been on an upward trajectory since he first stepped foot on Ohio State’s campus.
As a freshman, Bennett finished with 17 tackles and five tackles for loss, second most on the team. Injuries shortened his sophomore season to eight mediocre games, but he rebounded in 2013 with seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss.
“Last year I had a lot to prove,” Bennett said. “This year I still think I have something to prove, but I was a no-name last year. I had to be the leader of the defensive line, and that was pretty stressful. You have to earn respect on the football field. Guy’s follow playmakers. This year, I think it’s a little bit easier because, to my teammates and my coaches, I’ve proven myself and they trust me. It takes a load off.”
There are chances he’ll take on even more responsibility.
A preview of who might be captains is based on the media day attendees. For 2014, that list includes Bennett, Braxton Miller and Jeff Heuerman. It only took a month on the job for Johnson to categorize Bennett as a special leader.
“When he opens his mouth, guys are listening to him. That’s the kind of leadership you want.” Johnson said.
For Bennett, the admiration from teammates is humbling.
“The title [of captain] isn’t necessarily as important as what it means because our team votes on it,” he said. “It would mean a lot to me that the guys think I’m a captain and a leader on the team. I do care that my teammate respect me and look up to me.”
Well, there is the bad blood that exists between Bennett and Miller, though.
“I don’t like Mike,” Miller said. “I wear the black jersey and he gets mad, because when he breaks through the O-line, he wants to tackle me and grab my jersey.”
“No, he’s good,” Miller said, laughing. “I think he’s a black belt, so he uses his hands really well.”
Said Bennett: “In games, people aren’t wearing black jerseys. I try and be nice about it, but I have to practice too. I’ll give him a shoulder here and there to let him know.”
If you’re playing fewer snaps, you have to get your hits in on the quarterback somehow.