The way the Ohio State football team has used Johnathan Hankins the past three games, it’s clear Jim Heacock doesn’t view the freshman defensive lineman as a one-trick – or 1-technique – pony.
The OSU defensive coordinator and line coach has moved Hankins around starting in the Wisconsin game. Predominantly a player who backed up Dexter Larimore as a 1-technique (on a guard’s inside shoulder) tackle before, Hankins has played a lot more as a 3-technique (on a guard’s outside shoulder) as the Big Ten season has unfolded.
“We want to try to get Hank on the field a little bit more so we’re trying to teach him the 3-technique end stuff so he doesn’t have to come in just for me,” defensive tackle Dexter Larimore said. “He can blow (Cameron Heyward) or (Johnny Simon). He can go in at all three of those positions, we can get him on the field more.”
While Hankins’ 6-3, 335-pound frame seems particularly suited for Larimore's interior role as a player similar to a nose tackle in the team's defense, the true freshman from Detroit has the skills to play wherever on the line the Buckeyes need him.
Surprisingly nimble on his feet for his size, Hankins has earned the trust of his team as a player who can move outside and play the same positions as Heyward and Simon in the Buckeyes’ defense.
“He’s a big dude, a strong dude, but at the same time he’s very athletic,” linebacker Ross Homan said. “He uses his hands. He’s a great pass rusher. He doesn’t just stuff up holes in the run.”
Those skills have helped him become one of the most productive first-year players on the Ohio State team. Having played in every game, the man known as “Big Hank” has 14 tackles on the year, good for fifth on the defensive line, along with a sack he earned Sept. 25 vs. Eastern Michigan.
“I’ve just been going hard, showing effort and execution,” he said after that game. “Knowing the plays and going all out.”
Not bad for a three-star prospect and the No. 48 player at his position in his recruiting class coming into Ohio State. Hankins told BuckeyeSports.com before he arrived in Columbus that he thought he might redshirt before being told by Heacock to be ready to play.
He had trimmed weight from his frame before arriving at Ohio State, getting down to about 300 pounds, but there were still questions if he could handle the rigors of playing around 20 plays per game. He answered those questions in the opening game and hasn’t slowed down from there.
“I don’t really pay attention to that very much,” he said of talk about his weight. “As camp was going and how hard camp was, I just got through it, and playing in games is just making you get in more shape as the season goes. I’m working at it.”
While Heacock told Hankins to arrive ready to play, even the Buckeyes’ longtime line coach had to wonder just how ready his new charge would be to play this big a role. Heacock hasn't given much playing time to freshman linemen over the years, especially at the tackle position.
“John ever since he’s come in here has been a pretty pleasant – not a surprise, I wouldn’t say, but he’s come on a little bit quicker than we really even expected him to,” Heacock said. “He’s a good, instinctive football player. He has all the instincts that you look for in a big defensive lineman. He moves well for a big guy. He’s very intelligent. He really picks up the defense well.”
Heyward also said he wasn’t taken aback by Hankins’ quick rise.
“I wouldn't say surprised,” the senior end said. “I think he's become more comfortable with the system. Every week he's talking more and more and it's hard to get him to shut up now, but the main thing is, he moves so well for his size and he's just producing, that's all you can ask of a defensive lineman.”
Similarly impressed is the man whose job Hankins figures to take over in 2011.
“He’s really doing a good job,” Larimore said. “He’s using his hands very well. He’s really making plays out there so I think we’re trying to get him on the field more.”