2016 Season Preview: Ohio State's Defensive Line Has Both Questions, Answers

By Tim Shoemaker on August 22, 2016 at 10:10 am
Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard will lead the defensive line in 2016.

Since arriving at Ohio State, Urban Meyer has not been shy about expressing his opinion on the importance of the defensive line. Meyer believes games are won and lost up front, and that if a team doesn’t have a strong defensive line then it simply can’t have a great defense.

That's not uncommon, of course, as many coaches around the country share a similar philosophy. But Meyer almost goes out of his way, at times, to mention it and perhaps that's because he feels so strongly about the importance.

Under Meyer, the Buckeyes have had strong defensive lines in every season. Where his concerns usually lie, is with the depth.

Again, that's the question surrounding Ohio State in 2016; can the Buckeyes build enough depth up front to again be a dominant unit? There's plenty of talent, but a lot of it is unproven. As of last week, however, Meyer said both he and defensive line coach Larry Johnson were beginning to see some results.

"The defensive line is starting to materialize a little bit with depth," Meyer said.

Ohio State will need it, too, after the massive talent exodus that not only left the defensive line — but the entire football team. 

What follows is a breakdown of the Buckeyes' defensive line: how it performed a season ago, who figures to start this season and be in the rotation, and who projects to emerge this season as key contributors.

Defensive line in 2015

Led by one of the best defensive players in school history, Ohio State’s defensive line performed at a high level in 2015.

Despite facing constant double — and sometimes triple — teams, Joey Bosa was still named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year even though there was a dip in production from the two-time All-American. Bosa left the Buckeyes after just three years and was selected No. 3 overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers.

But it wasn’t just Bosa that produced up front. Sure, the rest of the defensive line benefitted from Bosa constantly drawing those double and triple teams, but there was plenty of other talents up front a year ago for Ohio State. Senior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington was one of those guys, recording seven tackles for loss and four sacks. Washington was a third-round selection of the Buffalo Bills.

In his first year as a starter, Tyquan Lewis had a strong season for the Buckeyes at the defensive end spot opposite Bosa. And after a redshirt season in which he searched to find a true position, Sam Hubbard also found a home at defensive end and provided Ohio State with some much-needed depth on the outside.

The interior depth was somewhat lacking a year ago, however, as Tommy Schutt lined up alongside Washington on the inside, and Joel Hale was the main backup, but beyond that, things got thin.

Still, Ohio State ranked ninth nationally in sacks with 38 as a team although not all obviously came from the defensive line. The Buckeyes also were 22nd in the country in rushing defense allowing 126.9 yards per game.

Tracy Sprinkle will finally get his shot as a starter.
2016 Outlook

Despite only having one returning starter, Ohio State’s defensive line still should be one of the Big Ten’s best this season — particularly its defensive ends. Lewis and Hubbard return and will lead the way. Lewis led the team in sacks a season ago with eight and Hubbard — even though he was primarily a backup to Bosa — was second with 6.5. Hubbard is expected to be one of the Big Ten’s breakout stars.

The question marks for Ohio State up front come on the interior, where they must replace both Washington and Schutt. A pair of veterans, Tracy Sprinkle and Michael Hill, figure to step in as starters although neither has much playing experience. Hill recorded 12 tackles and 0.5 sacks last season while Sprinkle had just four total tackles as both were in backup roles.

Johnson loves to rotate his unit, however, often saying he likes to play up to as many as 10 different guys throughout the course of a game. And even with redshirt sophomore Darius Slade out for the season with an Achilles injury, Johnson has plenty of talent to rotate behind Hubbard and Lewis at end. Junior Jalyn Holmes and true freshman Nick Bosa figure to be used as additional pass-rushers, while another true freshman, Jonathon Cooper, could be in the rotation, as well.

The projected backups on the interior for Ohio State are quite interesting. Dre’Mont Jones and Jashon Cornell are a pair of converted defensive ends, while DaVon Hamilton reportedly had a strong camp, as well. All three are young, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see any of them push Hill or Sprinkle for a starting spot at some point this season.

The Buckeyes figure to be strong on the outside of their defensive line, but have much more to prove on the interior. As is the case with most position groups for Ohio State this season, however, talent doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Final Word

The questions about Ohio State’s defensive tackle situation are legitimate. Sprinkle, Hill and Co. have to prove they’re capable of holding their own on the interior or it could be a struggle for the Buckeyes to stop the run this fall.

But perhaps Ohio State can mask some of that with superior play at defensive end, which it figures to have with Lewis, Hubbard, Holmes and the younger Bosa. If the Buckeyes can control the line of scrimmage on the early downs, allowing those talented pass rushers to get after the quarterback would be awfully beneficial.

There’s probably going to be a slight drop-off overall — that’s what happens when you lose a pair of NFL-caliber players — but overall Ohio State should still be strong up front.

It has to be in the Buckeyes want to be one of the Big Ten's best defenses once again.

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