Opportunities await on Ohio State defensive line

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The relative lack of depth and the loss of a pair of starters doesn’t necessarily make the Ohio State defensive line a weakness.

After all, no position group with a foundation that starts with arguably the nation’s most feared pass-rusher and a defensive tackle who could have been an early-round draft pick had he left school early is going to be considered a pushover.

But on such a loaded roster with numerous positions overflowing with talent, it’s certainly fair to focus on the defensive line as the area with the most room for improvement heading into spring practice next month. And if comparisons of strength don’t really apply for Ohio State at this point, if nothing else the defensive line certainly looks like the unit with the most opportunity for new faces to contribute as the program starts gearing up to defend its national title.

“The defensive line is always going to be a priority here at Ohio State,” co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash said. “Really, any successful program, if you’re going to be any good you have to have a plethora of offensive and defensive linemen. We were losing some guys, we’re going to lose some guys next year, and we needed to make sure that we replaced them in this year’s class.

“Getting not only quality but quantity was really important for us on the defensive line.”

The Buckeyes landed both last week on signing day, loading up in the trenches as part of a class that ranked No. 6 overall thanks in large part to the influx of linemen who could quickly become part of the rotation.

The loss of seniors Michael Bennett and Steve Miller up front makes the defensive line the only position group that must replace more than one starter, which is both part of the reason Ohio State is already establishing itself as a preseason No. 1 and why the position will likely spend the next few months facing scrutiny as maybe the only uncertainty for a team stocked with established contributors.

And while contributing right away in the trenches can be a tall order for true freshmen, the Buckeyes weren’t exactly targeting long-term projects when they put together a class of five linemen, including a pair of ESPN 300 selections. And with touted defensive end Jashon Cornell already on campus, the timetable for him in particular to contribute might be moved up even more as he potentially fills a void left not only by Miller, but in some ways former standout Noah Spence, as well.

“The players we recruit here at Ohio State, we recruit them for a reason,” Ash said. “They’re really good players, and if you’re a really good player, hopefully you’re going to have a chance to play early, regardless of the position. It’s probably a little bit harder at the defensive line position just because of the physical size and strength that those guys have.

“Those are really more developmental guys unless they’re really an elite player like a Joey Bosa coming out of high school.”

The Buckeyes still have that guy on the roster, and as long as Bosa is around it’s a relatively safe bet that there will be a fierce pass rush. With Adolphus Washington continuing to emerge as a force next to him on the interior, Ohio State doesn’t exactly have much reason to panic about the unit next fall thanks to those stout building blocks.

But even on the way to the title, the Buckeyes didn’t appear as deep as they would have liked up front and seemed unable at times to rotate snaps and keep the first-stringers as fresh as they planned. And if they’re going to do it this year, odds are they’re going to need some fresh faces to be involved -- before the pressure really mounts at this time next year with Washington out of eligibility and Bosa most likely heading to the NFL.

“We’re recruiting at a high level,” Ash said. “We are recruiting players that come in and help the program early. Can they all do that? I don’t know.

“We’ll find out when they get on campus.”

Once they arrive, the newcomers will find plenty of opportunity. Just don’t mistake that for being a weakness.