Spring Forecast: Defensive End
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s going to be an interesting spring at the defensive end position for Ohio State. The Buckeyes lose a captain in John Simon and a fifth-year senior in Nathan Williams who could still end up in the NFL.
Youth will be the name of the game for Luke Fickell and Mike Vrabel, but how quickly will those young guys be ready to do more than just take up space on the edge?
We take a closer look at the defensive end position in our latest Spring Forecast.
Who's Coming Back?
The Buckeyes lose both starting defensive ends from the 2012 football season, and those weren’t your ordinary defensive ends. Nathan Williams came back from microfracture surgery to turn in a solid senior season with the Buckeyes, and John Simon was the Defensive Player of the Year in the Big Ten.
He was also the “heart and soul” of the Ohio State defense last year, which is not something that will be easy for the Buckeyes to replace in 2013. The front seven is young, and there are no seniors on the defensive line heading into this season.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The two key guys they have returning at defensive end are both second-year sophomores, although junior Michael Bennett is a guy who could play defensive tackle or end. It seems like he is better suited for the 3-technique spot that Johnathan Hankins played last year, which means sophomore Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington are your pre-spring favorites to replace Simon and Williams on the edge.
Spence played in 237 plays from the line of scrimmage last year to lead all returnees on the defensive line with Washington (156 plays) right behind him. Spence was tops among this group with 12 tackles while Washington ranked third on the team with three sacks.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
Because it’s Ohio State and it’s Urban Meyer, expectations are going to be through the roof for just about every position group this spring. That includes a position that lost the Defensive Player of the Year in John Simon, but a lot of that hinges on the fact Spence and Washington came to Columbus with so many accolades.
Both guys showed they were ready to contribute early as freshmen last year, and the expectations are now there for both guys to become all-conference performers in the very near future. That seems fair considering all the things Meyer has had to say about those two kids since he signed them a year ago, but realistic expectations should probably start out a lot lower than they actually will.
Remember, these kids are young guys trying to step in and replace the face of the program from last season. It’s not going to be easy, and they probably aren’t going to walk out there and lead the Big Ten in sacks this year the way Simon did last season.
Best Case Scenario
Best case scenario for the Buckeyes this spring is that Spence and Washington are ready to be the guys they were recruited to be. They both showed flashes of dominance as freshmen last season, but it’s asking a lot for a couple of second-year guys to emerge as the best players on the defensive line.
Spence and Washington might just be up to the task. The Buckeyes finished fourth in the Big Ten in sacks a year ago, but Simon had a lot to do with that. If the Buckeyes are going to become a dominant defense in 2013, it is going to be Spence and Washington leading the way.
The Buckeyes could also use a boost from guys like Steve Miller and Se’Von Pittman to provide some depth at the defensive end position this spring before 5-star Joey Bosa arrives in the summer.
One to Watch For
The Buckeyes do have a pair of freshmen from the 2013 class who enrolled early to play defensive end this spring. That includes Tracy Sprinkle out of Elyria, but the guy to watch for this spring is Tyquan Lewis out of Tarboro, N.C.
This is a kid who had 25 sacks the last two years and helped his team to four-straight state championship games. He had offers to play at UNC, LSU, South Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech before he deciding to sign with the Buckeyes.
At 6-3, 225 pounds, Lewis could line up and play some Sam linebacker if needed, but he seems ideally fit to play the LEO position, which is a hybrid end/linebacker position. The Buckeyes don’t have many natural LEO’s on the roster, so Lewis could slide into the two-deep behind Spence this spring if he can prove he’s mentally ready to handle the position.
Trending Up or Down
In a couple years, there is no doubt this group will be trending upward. Meyer even said he expects them to be one of the top defensive lines in the country two years down the road, but we’re going to say they are trending down at the moment.
That might seem unfair considering the fact Meyer has corralled a stable of defensive ends in his first two recruiting classes, but the Buckeyes lost one of the all-time great leaders in John Simon and a pretty fearless player in Nathan Williams.
It won’t be easy to replace those two guys, even with a pair of blue-chippers in Spence and Washington. If they had one more guy who had some experience up front, it might be easier to say the ends were trending up. Right now, that’s too much of a reach, but we could easily be singing a different tune after spring camp.
Urban Meyer knows exactly what he’s doing when putting a team together than can compete for Big Ten and national championships. It starts with the quarterback, but also with the guys on the other side of the ball who can rush the passer.
In two years, Meyer has landed nine guys who play on the defensive line, including six guys who can play on the edge and get after the passer. The combination of Spence, Washington, Lewis and Bosa should be illegal, but it’s going to take a little bit of time for those young guys to mature into complete football players.
I think the defensive line will have some really nice highs this year, but I expect it will also have some low moments where the young guys play like young guys. The important thing for Luke Fickell will be how quickly he and Mike Vrabel can bring these kids along and get them ready to play the kind of consistent football it takes to win championships.
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