He didn't expect it, but Luke Fickell got an early look at what his next defensive line could look like in the final game of Ohio State's 2015 football season.
With Adolphus Washington suspended for the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame on New Year's Day after a solicitation citation, Fickell saw two-time All-American defensive end Joey Bosa ejected in the first quarter against the Fighting Irish for targeting.
Suddenly, Fickell's front four consisted of Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis, Donovan Munger and Michael Hill were the best he could run out to combat Notre Dame's high-powered offense. That could be the starting defensive line this fall when the Buckeyes host Bowling Green Sept. 3.
"We'll see," Fickell said in the locker room after Ohio State's 44-28 Fiesta Bowl win. "There's some other young guys that are going to be in there too."
Munger, Hill and Tracy Sprinkle are the elder statesmen at defensive tackle, all juniors that sat behind starters Michael Bennett, Washington, Schutt and Joel Hale the last two seasons. Ohio State listed Schutt, Hale, Munger and Sprinkle as co-starters by the end of the year, especially after Urban Meyer suspended Washington. There are no seniors on Ohio State's defensive line for 2016.
The holes are wide.
"Interior defensive line is the biggest concern, but we have some guys coming in," Meyer said Jan. 7. "I'm not allowed to talk about them yet, but a couple guys will be here in about a week."
Those freshmen on the defensive line already enrolled are Malik Barrow and Jonathon Cooper, but the latter fits the mold of a rush end while Barrow is coming off a torn ACL suffered in September. Nick Bosa underwent surgery for an ACL injury too, is rehabbing like a fiend but doesn't get to Columbus until the summer.
Meyer is anxious to see what those players can do, but knows those that have been in the program are going to be stressed thin to start 2016. Along with Munger, Sprinkle and Hill the list is lengthy: Darius Slade, Joshua Alabi, Dre'Mont Jones, Davon Hamilton, Robert Landers, Jashon Cornell, Jalyn Holmes and Dylan Thompson.
"There's plenty of them, but that's the most difficult spot," Fickell said. "Kind of like an offensive linemen. If those guys are talented enough, they're strong enough and they know what they're doing, but the true physicality of the game, taking that next step to me is the most difficult thing."
Fickell singled out Jones as someone who was farther along than the others before he went down with an injury, but the fact remains true: There are plenty of able bodies to step up at defensive tackle. But they must perform after the Buckeyes missed out on big-time recruits at the position like Rashard Lawrence and Antwuan Jackson.
"The good thing about defensive line as opposed to offensive line there's not really truly as much to learn it comes down a little more to the battle," Fickell said. "But guys physically developed I would say have the first and best chance to come in and be able to compete at that level right away."
Could that be Bosa? Could it be Barrow? Or will the older guys at defensive tackle like Hill, Munger and Sprinkle lead the charge on the interior defensive line?
The questions begin to get answered Tuesday with the start of spring drills.
"It's going to be a heckuva battle," Fickell said. "We've got some young guys that are going to come in, we've got some young guys that maybe redshirted or are hurt last year that are going to get some opportunities too."