Healthy Michael Bennett provides a boost

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There wasn’t much question about talent.

Ohio State perhaps wasn’t even too concerned about finding Michael Bennett a position.

The Buckeyes didn’t really need much evaluation of his technique, didn’t have to figure out if the junior understood his assignments or see how well he interacted with teammates as a potential leader for a rebuilt defensive line.

All they needed to see was Bennett healthy throughout the spring, ready to provide the type of production that was expected of him a year ago before nagging injuries largely robbed him of the chance in what amounted to a lost season.

“That was not what I wanted,” Bennett said during spring practice. “But, I mean, you can’t dwell on the negative things that happened to you. You’ve got to keep trying to push forward and just weather the storm.”

The Buckeyes survived the rough patch just fine a year ago, when the versatile Bennett wasn’t available. Even when he returned from a groin issue that he never appeared to truly shake, they kept chugging along to a perfect record thanks to the steady group of veterans on hand.

Bennett was supposed to be an integral part of the unit a year ago, bringing enough size at 6-foot-3, 285 pounds to push for playing time on the inside while adding the kind of athleticism needed to rush the passer on the edge. He left spring practice a year ago technically listed as a backup to defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins, but the praise for his skills came from the very top of the program, with Urban Meyer making it clear that Bennett was one of the “four best” linemen heading into the offseason.

Had Bennett stayed healthy and remained on that path, the Buckeyes might not be looking at replacing all four starters. Had Bennett not struggled to get back on the practice field or return to full strength, his numbers surely would have looked a bit different than the 11 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and one recovery that he recorded in eight games.

But Bennett is the first to admit there’s nothing he can do to change that now. And after 15 complete workouts, there’s also even less reason for the Buckeyes to dwell on it.

“Michael had a good spring,” Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. “It was consistent, he was there every day, he didn’t miss any time with bumps and bruises, which is something that he’s done in the past. He hadn’t been able to string a whole bunch of practices together, Michael did that and he was a leader for us. He was a physical presence for us inside, his understanding was very high with what he was being asked to do.

“I think Michael Bennett -- by being out there and being consistent, his message and his toughness and his play -- helps with leadership. To me, leadership is about being consistent in your message and demanding it from other players. But first and foremost, you have to do it yourself, and he did.”

The next step will be doing it throughout the grind of a season, and the task doesn’t get any easier when Bennett’s new position is taken into account.

The Buckeyes are now more settled on the edge thanks to rising sophomores Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington, leaving little need for Bennett to prove he can be as effective outside as inside. But there’s an enormous hole to fill at three-technique thanks to Hankins’ decision to skip his senior season and turn pro, and if nothing else, having one spot to consistently line up at will make it easier to make sure Bennett is on the field and back in the rotation.

“We need Michael Bennett, we do,” Vrabel said. “Michael Bennett needs some confidence in himself, and he’s gaining it. Michael has also got to stay healthy.

“He understands he’s got to stay healthy, he’s got to take care of his body. It’s not easy in there, but we expect him to do that.”

Bennett met that standard throughout spring. The Buckeyes could certainly use a repeat in the fall.