Heacock must wonder sometimes whether he’s appreciated. Within the confines of athletic department he assuredly is held in high regard but it seems the fanbase often glosses over what he’s developed in his years as the defensive line coach for the Buckeyes. Routinely, his group of players, which usually number seven or eight in a rotation, are the anchor of the defense and this year is no different.
With apologies to Dickens, like clockwork, the great expectations of last year’s crew seem to have been carried forward. Being asked to dominate is a familiar request and such is the case when you have abundance of talented players who ache to impress coaches and be given a chance to ply their trade against opposing offenses.
In reading various articles and message board chatter, the general consensus is this group has all the makings to be one of the best we’ve seen in recent memory. On the surface, it is a strong collection of players with a potential first round pick in Cameron Heyward but green in experience otherwise. That doesn’t seem to bother Heacock who floated this little ditty earlier this spring:
I want to go on the record and say that this will be the best defensive line to ever play at Ohio State.
Oh, on record you are, coach. For all that, do they even stack up to the standard of recent history, that being the 2002 group? Let’s take a position by position look.
Nathan Williams vs Will Smith While Smith garnered All-American honors, Nathan Williams will be just entering his first season as a starter. Smith was known as a great pass rusher but he was really underrated against the run which is a unique quality for a guy with his speed and quickness. To date, Williams has been a back up and situational pass rusher but, barring injury, will get a full season to showcase his wares. Ultimately, the disparity in this comparison is about as wide as any of the group.
Dexter Larimore vs Kenny Peterson Larimore was hobbled much of last year but he’s a fine player who most resembles a typical two-gap defensive tackle. He’s not going to run anyone down or make a tackle out of his area. Peterson, on the hand, was a converted defensive end who maintained much of his quickness despite adding bulk for the tackle spot. He also had better range than Larimore in making tackles out of his zone.
John Simon vs Tim Anderson What I love about Simon is he’s a physical specimen who takes pride in his body. As one coach put it, he’s the only lineman who has six pack abs. He also is relentless in pursuit which will serve him well this year and beyond. But, he is still young, still improving technique and still learning the defense. Tim Anderson, though, was a quintessential tackle - hard nosed, great initial pop at the snap and being an ex wrestler, he had instinctive hand work to gain the leverage advantage.
Cameron Heyward vs. Darrion Scott Here is where 2010 shines through. Cameron Heyward is on the path to be a first round pick provided his trajectory continues at the same pace. Although his numbers aren’t eyepoppingly good, his value is how effective he can be from multiple positions. He can easily blow by tackles from a 9-technique and then the next play line up in a 5-technique and workover an offensive guard. That’s rare at the college level. Scott was often overshadowed by Smith but he, too, was a large defensive end who could work a bit inside but he didn’t have quite the skillset of the young Ironhead.
2010 Backups vs 2002 Backups David Thompson was as a back up defensive tackle and he rarely got any publicity but when he was on the field the dropoff was next to nothing. He would be a starter on 2010 line if that tells you anything. Other guys like Simon Fraser and Mike Kudla got some snaps as did an out of shape Marcus Green. Conversely, the 2010 group of backups are players who have literally barely played.
Of course, you might feel differently. By anyone’s standard, the 2002 group was special and decorated with all the starters drafted by the NFL. However, that doesn’t mean it’s lost on me the comparison isn’t necessarily fair. After all, the evaluation pits one line’s finished season against the other whose slate hasn’t started.
But, what does Heacock know that we don’t to make him as confident as he sounds? I suspect it all starts with Cameron Heyward which gives him a little more flexibility than your average defensive end. Nathan Williams and the others all have great speed on the edge. Solomon Thomas, for instance, was on kickoff coverage last year. His defensive tackles are more experienced and fully healthy. All of them just need opportunities which, outside of Heyward, were pretty scarce for the rotation. Yet, making Heacock's prediction even more intriguing is the fact he lost four players who saw significant time, two of which were starters. So, at this moment, I'll hope for being as good as last year and ask all others to table the pressurized ‘best ever’ lingo for another day. Perhaps, a day sooner than I may think. What about you?