What did all four teams in this year's College Football Playoff have in common?
While Alabama and Clemson may have featured the two most talented defensive lines in the nation and Washington's defensive front proved to be the most difficult to run the ball against in the Pac-12, Ohio State's down linemen put up quite a formidable effort themselves in 2016. Such success could've been expected in advance of last season, though, as talented ends Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, and Jalyn Holmes anchored one of the few position groups on the entire team with any returning experience.
But although Lewis won the Smith-Brown award as the Big Ten's Defensive Lineman of the year, neither he or any other talented edge player lead the unit in tackles. Instead, that honor fell to a highly unexpected recipient, one whose role on the team was in question just one year ago.
After only cracking the starting lineup as a junior at Cleveland's St. Ignatius high school, Dre'Mont Jones was largely an afterthought in Ohio State's decorated 2015 recruiting class. Initially expected to play strongside defensive end, the former basketball player followed a route similar to that of his predecessor at the 3-technique tackle position, Adolphus Washington.
Though Washington had been one of the most highly sought after talents in the nation, he was forced to rebuild his body and learn how to play on the interior of the line after arriving in Columbus, eventually starting 31 games in his career as a Buckeye. Though he played the nose tackle position alongside Michael Bennett during the 2014 championship campaign, the Cincinnati native eventually settled in as a dominant force at the other tackle spot in his senior year and heard his name called in the third round of the NFL draft last spring.
Despite the wealth of blue-chip defensive end prospects, many fans expected a drop off at Washington's position after his departure, with Tracy Sprinkle expected to fill the void. However, Sprinkle suffered a serious knee injury during the opening game of the season, forcing Jones into action.
Jones was coming off a serious knee injury of his own, though, suffered during his senior year of high school which forced him to redshirt his first season as a Buckeye. But throughout his rehab and time away from the field, Jones dropped 30 lbs of bad weight before adding 25 lbs of muscle in Mickey Marotti's strength and conditioning program.
Yet although the Buckeyes' newest starter certainly looked the part at 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds when he hit the field for the first time, questions remained about whether he was ready to contribute so soon. But after a slow start, recording only three tackles in as many games, Jones turned the corner once Big Ten play began.
When watching the Buckeye defense after that point in the year, #86 always seems to pop off the screen. Few players along the interior seem to always be near the ball as often as he is, even though he's just learning to play the position.
Lined up in the 'B' gap between the guard and tackle to the strong side of the formation in Ohio State's base 'Over' front, his main job as the '3-technique' tackle is to fill gaps and occupy blockers keeping middle linebacker, Raekwon McMillan free to make tackles. But quite often, Jones used his long arms to control those blockers, keeping them from getting into his body and dictating his movement, allowing him to stay in position to make a play on the ball carrier himself.
"In the spring, it was all new to me," Jones said last October in his first media availability as a starter for one of the premier programs in the nation. "I played D-end in high school and then this spring was my first time actually playing football because I was out with my ACL injury. I know in the spring there were times in practice where I got blown about 10 yards off the ball. Now that's starting to change because I'm starting to grow, starting to learn, getting stronger, getting smarter."
Credit is obviously due to his position coach, Larry Johnson, who has coached 12 Big Ten defensive player or lineman of the year award winners in stints at Penn State and Ohio State, and may add to that list thanks to the talent currently found in his meeting room.
“These guys are so young. I have two defensive ends who are now playing inside, so I've changed the dynamic of how we play," Johnson told Big Ten Network. "We're a little bit twitchy on the inside. Not as big as we'd like to be, but I think that makes this group faster.”
"Twitchy" is certainly one way of describing Jones, who, by season's end was setting up camp in opposing backfields. In the two biggest games of the season, Jones made big plays, like this impressive stop against the Wolverines in which he jumped the snap...
...and the one below in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Clemson. Although the Buckeyes delivered a performance to forget offensively, the defense played admirably and Jones was no exception, tallying five tackles that evening in Arizona.
Jones seemed to play his best in Ohio State's biggest games of the season, as he registered eight stops on the road at Wisconsin, and seven in the regular season finale against their rivals from up north. With strong performances against Rutgers, Indiana, and Northwestern to boot, the redshirt freshman did something neither Washington or Bennett accomplished from his position.
With 52 tackles, Jones put up a higher total in one season than any Buckeye defensive tackle since Johnathan Hankins' 55 in 2012. Hankins, of course, was a first-team All-American that season, selected 49th the following spring's NFL draft, and is currently in line to receive a big payday from the New York Giants.
But with a massive frame and another year to add to it before he's eligible to become a professional himself, Jones possesses a natural athleticism unseen at the position since Urban Meyer took over the program and put a focus on recruiting talented defensive linemen. Though he wasn't part of the heralded 'Rushmen' package that placed speed rushers Lewis, Hubbard, Holmes, and fellow freshman Nick Bosa on the field together last fall, Jones was chosen to be the nose guard in the 3-3-5 Nickel package, yet again filling Washington's shoes admirably in limited third down snaps.
Although he's yet to officially record his first career sack, his teammates believe he's the perfect man to line up over center in that special package.
“He’s just really twitched up," Hubbard noted last fall. "Sometimes they collapse down and he gets three guys on him and the two ends have one-on-ones, or he has one guy on him and we’re pretty confident he can beat the center one-on-one and we’ll take two. He’s just a great pass rusher and really he’s just going to keep developing as a guy that can get to the quarterback. I think we need him at that spot."
But even if he never develops into a dominant pass rusher, he'll undoubtedly start seeing his name appear in mock drafts next fall, thanks to the kind of relentless motor that can't be taught. Even when he wasn't the one bringing down the ball carrier, Jones always seemed to be nearby.
Despite only seeing regular time on first and second downs last fall, Jones' effort earned him a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-America team, joining teammates Mike Weber and Michael Jordan. But that doesn't mean his place on the field will be secure in 2017.
According to Pro Football Focus, three of the top 10 returning players in the conference can be found along the Buckeye defensive line in Bosa, Lewis, and Hubbard, while fellow interior players like Michael Hill and Robert Landers deserve playing time as well. Additionally, Sprinkle is expected to return from his injury as Johnson's meeting room will add even more blue chip talent in the form of freshmen Chase Young, Haskell Garrett, and Jerron Cage this fall.
But according to Jones, he's getting plenty of help and support from those teammates.
"I just watch Adolphus, DD, I just watched how he was last year because there is still film of him last year," Jones said. "I just watch how he was and I just kind of watch Tracy and how he was in the past. It's all love and help from the older guys."
While fans will be understandably looking to all the stars on either end of the line to make plays for the Scarlet and Gray in 2017, they might also want to keep an eye inside. After the havoc Jones created in 2016, opponents certainly will be.