Four Kings: Dan Wilkinson, Jim Stillwagon, Bill Willis and Luke Fickell Selected As Ohio State’s Greatest Defensive Tackles

By Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge on July 23, 2023 at 8:35 am
Dan Wilkinson, Jim Stillwagon, Bill Willis and Luke Fickell

Who are Ohio State’s four greatest players of all-time at each position? We’re asking Eleven Warriors readers to help us decide.

After naming Ohio State’s four best defensive ends two weeks ago, we move to the interior of the defensive line for the sixth installment of Four Kings and highlight OSU’s greatest defensive tackles.

There was a clear consensus on the top three choices this week, as Dan Wilkinson, Jim Stillwagon and Bill Willis were all included on at least 60 percent of our readers’ ballots. The race for the fourth spot was much tighter, but Luke Fickell edged out fellow nose tackle Johnathan Hankins to earn the fourth and final spot on our “Mount Rushmore” of DTs.

Below, we take a look at what those four defensive tackles did during their Ohio State careers to entrench themselves as Ohio State greats. Plus, we look at some of the other defensive tackles who garnered consideration in the selection process, and Eleven Warriors’ Dan Hope and Matt Gutridge share and explain their own individual ballots.

Dan Wilkinson (1991-93)

“Big Daddy” played only two seasons for the Buckeyes after redshirting as a true freshman in 1991, but those two years were enough for Wilkinson to establish himself as Ohio State’s greatest defensive tackle ever.

He immediately emerged as one of the best defensive tackles in college football as a redshirt freshman in 1992, earning first-team All-Big Ten honors after recording 46 tackles with 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. He followed that up with another dominant season in 1993, earning consensus All-American status and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as he recorded 44 tackles with 13 tackles for loss and two sacks.

Wilkinson was so beastly during those two seasons that the Cincinnati Bengals selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1994 NFL draft, making him one of only two defensive tackles ever selected with the No. 1 pick.

Jim Stillwagon (1968-70)

One of Ohio State’s legendary “Super Sophomores,” Stillwagon was a dominant force in the middle of the Buckeyes’ defense as their starting middle guard for three years. Ohio State won two national championships and allowed just over 12 points per game over the course of those three seasons, and Stillwagon was a big reason why.

An athletic run-stopper in the middle of the defensive line who also dropped back to play linebacker at times, Stillwagon was a consensus All-American in both of his final two seasons at Ohio State (unanimous in 1970). He won the first-ever Rotary Lombardi Award in 1970 and also won the Outland Trophy that same season as college football’s best interior lineman.

Stillwagon was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1991.

Bill Willis (1942-44)

A star on both sides of the line for Ohio State, Willis helped lead the Buckeyes to a national championship in 1942 and earned first-team All-American honors in both 1943 and 1944.

Described by Ohio State’s media guide as “a devastating blocker on offense and a punishing, relentless tackler on defense,” Willis was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1971. He is the only lineman and one of only eight players overall to have his number (99) retired by Ohio State; the “Block 0” jersey, which Ohio State has awarded to one player each year since college football players were first allowed to wear No. 0 in 2020, is also dedicated to Willis.

Willis went on to become one of the first Black players in the modern era of professional football when he signed with the Cleveland Browns in 1945. A seven-time first-team all-league honoree in his eight seasons with the Browns, Willis is one of just three Ohio State players (along with offensive linemen Orlando Pace and Jim Parker) to be a member of both the College Football and Pro Football Hall of Fames.

Luke Fickell (1992-96)

An iron man in the middle of Ohio State’s defensive line, Fickell set an Ohio State record (later surpassed by offensive lineman Billy Price) by starting 50 consecutive games at nose tackle from 1993-96.

The three-time high school state champion wrestler recorded 212 total tackles with 26 tackles for loss and six sacks over the course of his four years as a starter, leading the way for Ohio State’s run-stopping efforts as the Buckeyes held their opponents to an average of just over 3.2 rushing yards per attempt across those four seasons.

Fickell returned to Ohio State in 2002 as an assistant coach and spent 15 years on the Buckeyes’ coaching staff, including a one-year stint as interim head coach in 2011 following Jim Tressel’s resignation. He is now entering his first year as head coach at Wisconsin following six seasons as head coach at Cincinnati.

Honorable Mentions

Top 10 Defensive Tackles by Votes
Defensive Tackle Percentage of Ballots
Note: All percentages were multiplied by four
from their vote totals since each voter was able
to vote for up to four players.

In the closest race for the final spot in any of our first six editions of Four Kings, Johnathan Hankins missed the cut for the top four by just four votes, appearing on 41% of reader ballots while Fickell made 42%. Hankins certainly would have been a valid choice for the top four after his own career as a dominant nose tackle in the middle of Ohio State’s defense, highlighted by his first-team All-American season in 2012.

Michael Bennett, Ohio State’s all-time leader in sacks by a defensive tackle (18), earned the sixth-most votes in our balloting. Bennett earned first-team All-American honors in 2014 as one of the captains and defensive stars of a team that won the national championship.

A trio of 2000s standouts – All-American Quinn Pitcock and fellow All-Big Ten honorees Tim Anderson and Darrion Scott – rounded out the top 10 along with Adolphus Washington, who starred alongside Bennett on the 2014 championship team and went on to earn All-American honors in 2015.

Dan’s Picks

Jim Stillwagon, Dan Wilkinson, Bill Willis and Michael Bennett

There’s a gap in terms of career accomplishments between Ohio State’s top three all-time defensive tackles and everyone else who’s played the position for the Buckeyes, which made the first three choices easy. Stillwagon, Wilkinson and Willis were all superstars of their generations, as evidenced by Stillwagon and Willis being College Football Hall of Famers and Wilkinson being the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick.

Bennett was the most deserving recipient of the fourth spot in my eyes because of how disruptive he was during Ohio State’s national championship run in 2014. He’s the best interior pass-rusher Ohio State has had at the position in recent history, and he elevated his game on the biggest stages – he recorded 11 tackles for loss with six sacks in Ohio State’s final seven games of 2014 alone – to lead the Buckeyes to the mountaintop of college football.

Matt’s Picks

Bill Willis, Jim Stillwagon, Dan Wilkinson, Michael Bennett

I went into this thinking the four defensive tackles would be easy to identify: Bill Willis, Jim Stillwagon, Big Daddy Wilkinson and Cameron Heyward. Unfortunately, I forgot that Heyward played the majority of his Ohio State career as a defensive end, making the fourth player at defensive tackle much more difficult to narrow down.

Pete Cusick, Nick Buonamici, Aaron Brown, Jerome Foster, Tim Anderson, Darrion Scott, Michael Bennett and Johnathan Hankins were the players I felt were deserving for the final spot. However, only one can be selected and Bennett gets my vote. He is Ohio State’s leader in sacks for defensive tackles and was an instrumental player in winning the 2014 national championship.

Photos of Dan Wilkinson, Bill Willis and Luke Fickell via Ohio State Dept. of Athletics
Photo of Jim Stillwagon via Malcolm Emmons – USA TODAY Sports

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