Spence picks up pace

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Noah Spence anticipated a learning curve.

As much as the freshman had dominated in high school and as high as the expectations might have been for the start of his Buckeyes career, he was taking a realistic, measured approach when trying to gauge how much of an impact he could have right away.

The first time he stepped on the practice field gave Spence some instant validation when he saw the kind of offensive linemen he was about to be facing on a weekly basis in the Big Ten -- and daily on the practice field.

"I mean, that [realization] happened like the first day of practice when we started hitting," Spence said. "You know, these dudes are not anything like high school.

"When we started going against each other, I felt it. You don't see that in high school. Especially when they can move like that, that's not normal."

Maybe not every team has massive dudes like 6-foot-8 Reid Fragel or nasty blockers like 312-pound Jack Mewhort at tackle, but Ohio State had them on hand to offer Spence a quick welcome to the world of major college football. And while the talented defensive end was right not to expect a seamless transition even with his natural athleticism and track record of success, Spence is already starting to get more adept at handling the competition as the season progresses.

After making a bit of a splash with a couple of tackles early in the season and a sack in his debut against Miami (Ohio), Spence went through a drought for four games without making a play. That isn't uncommon for true freshmen -- regardless of pedigree.

But after breaking out with five tackles thanks to an expanded package three weeks ago at Indiana, Spence has added crucial depth to the line that has afforded Ohio State the flexibility to move around its veterans and dial up the pressure for a surging defense.

"I think it's a process," defensive line coach Mike Vrabel said. "I try to tell all our guys that are younger, first- or second-year guys, this is a process. It's tough. I think they come from really, really successful high school careers and it doesn't happen overnight.

"By having him learn a package and continuing to expand on that, that's what you have to do, you have to gain the confidence of your players and coaches to go out there and play. Every time he goes out there, we know he's going to play hard. We just hope that his development continues and that role can expand a little bit."

Gradually the Buckeyes have added more responsibility for Spence and fellow freshman Adolphus Washington, which has most notably allowed Nathan Williams to move out and play some snaps at linebacker. It can also give Ohio State a chance to offer a breather to veterans John Simon and Johnathan Hankins, who were taxed by an inordinately high number of reps at times in the middle of the season.

And while for now Spence is likely to maintain a specialized role with just two games left in his first season, the time is fast approaching when the Buckeyes won't be able to spare a lot of patience with the learning curve. Simon, Williams and defensive tackle Garrett Goebel are seniors, and Hankins is a potential top-10 pick if he elects to forego his final season of eligibility -- which might make all those early battles during camp even more valuable for Spence as he speeds through his development.

"I think some of the guys that come from different high schools, they're usually the best player -- and that's great," Vrabel said. "But now you get up here and Reid Fragel is playing tackle and he's athletic. There's Jack Mewhort, those type of guys that you just can't run around or overpower. You have to have some technique.

"Everybody is fast up here, everybody is athletic up here."

Spence knew that coming in. Now he's starting to get a handle on how to beat them.