Ohio State's depth is about to get tested once again.
With Friday's news of second-team all-Big Ten defensive tackle Adolphus Washington's suspension for the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame following a solicitation citation, the Buckeyes are to be without one of their best defenders against the nation's 25th-best rushing offense (215.2 yards per game).
Washington flourished in the three-technique position on Ohio State's defensive line in 2015, filling in for the departed Michael Bennett. The senior tallied 49 tackles, seven for loss and four sacks this season, in addition to returning an interception for a touchdown during a 38-12 victory against Western Michigan Sept. 26.
"I have such respect for Adolphus, that this is his last year and I wanted there to be zero ... He can be anywhere from a high draft pick to an undrafted player," Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said on the Big Ten teleconference Oct. 27. "I wanted to be very clear and honest about what high draft picks look like."
Washington is projected as a first or second NFL Draft selection this spring by cbssports.com draft analyst Dane Brugler, possessing freakish athletic ability to go with great size on the defensive line.
To put it simply, he'll be missed by Ohio State against the Fighting Irish. So what are the options for the Buckeyes to cope with his absence on the field New Year's Day?
Full-Time Rushmen Package, With Replacement for Washington
The Buckeyes have utilized what they call their "Rushmen" package on third down or passing situations all season. Along with Washington, stud pass rushers Joey Bosa, Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard were let out of their cages to get after the opposing quarterback every time they figured he would look to throw.
The unit had great success, considering so much attention was given to Bosa, the now two-time Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year. Lewis led the team with 7.0 sacks in 2015, while Hubbard was second with 5.5 and Bosa third with 5.0.
"That gives us the ability to rush the passer and also play the run in pass situations," Washington said of the package Oct. 28. "Sometimes, teams don’t always pass the ball in obvious situations so we’ve still got enough weight in there, enough meat in there to still play the run."
Typically, Bosa moved to the interior alongside Washington with Hubbard and Lewis on the ends in the scheme. Washington would play noseguard — the same position he did in 2014 — a spot he said he didn't care for too much, which brings us to his potential replacement there.
|Player||Tackles (SOLO)||TFL||Sacks||QB Hurries||Forced Fumbles||INT|
|ADOLPHUS WASHINGTON||49 (23)||7.0||4.0||4||1||1|
|TOMMY SCHUTT||25 (7)||5.0||2.5||0||1||0|
|JOEL HALE||12 (2)||0||0||0||0||0|
|MICHAEL HILL||10 (4)||0.5||0||2||0||0|
|TRACY SPRINKLE||3 (1)||0||0||0||0||0|
Seniors Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale as well as sophomore Michael Hill have played noseguard for the Buckeyes all season in their base defensive look, with Bosa, Lewis and Washington at the other three spots.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson could elect to insert any one of the trio of Schutt/Hale/Hill at nose and play the rest of the rushmen package at more spots than solely passing situations.
That would allow the Buckeyes to have arguably their three best eligible defensive linemen on the field with more consistency.
More Snaps for Michael Hill, Tommy Schutt and Joel Hale in Base Look
No matter how we look at this, the trio of Hill, Schutt, Hale and others are bound to see more playing time with the suspension of Washington.
However, if Johnson, Meyer and defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Chris Ash feel confident enough to play them in the normal base look — thus, non-Rushmen package — the onus will be on them to produce.
Ohio State's defense is designed for the noseguard to eat up blockers and open lanes for the rest of the defensive line in addition to the linebackers to make plays. The Buckeyes could decide to play a battery of Hill and Schutt, Hill and Hale or Schutt and Hale on the interior with Bosa and Lewis patrolling the ends in the base defense. It all depends on how much each guy has grown in practice and if they can stay healthy. Both Schutt and Hale have battled injuries at different points this season.
Trust in Washington's Backups to Produce
Washington's been the lone starter at one of the defensive tackles on Ohio State's depth chart all season long.
At the other spot, Schutt, Hale and Hill have been listed as co-starters since the former returned from a broken wrist. The three work at nose, but Washington's been the man at the three-technique spot.
Do Meyer and Johnson trust sophomores Donovan Munger and Tracy Sprinkle to step right in and contribute enough so the unit as a whole isn't scrambling against Irish running backs C.J. Prosise (if he's healthy enough to play) and Josh Adams? Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is second on the team behind Prosise with nine touchdowns, providing a threat in the run game as well.
Munger and Sprinkle have hardly played this season, only notching three tackles between the two of them. Meyer and Co. could choose to burn freshman Robert Landers' redshirt, but it is unlikely in the season's final game.
No one is Washington — his talent and abilities are uncommon for someone of that size — but can someone step up when their team needs them to to help beat Notre Dame?