Cameron Heyward, a four-year starter, and Dexter Larimore, a regular member of the rotation since 2007, are gone from the Ohio State defensive line, but six members of the 2010 two-deep are back.
“I'm excited about them,” head coach Luke Fickell said last week in Chicago for Big Ten Football Media Days. “To me we've got a chance any time you say we could be solid up front on both sides of the ball. I think you've got two guys everybody knows about on that side who are returning with Johnny Simon and Nathan Williams, but then we've got guys like Johnathan Hankins and Adam Bellamy, a bunch of guys we're excited about, and some big guys.”
He specifically identified finding the best roles for Simon and Hankins as key to the 2011 defense’s success.
“Where they are on the field in the defense will also be a big factor as to how much they can play,” Fickell said. “If Johnny's in there at nose guard at 270 pounds taking on double-teams for nine games, I don't know how he's going to be. That won't change his motor or his heart or his mindset, but that's where we as coaches have to do a good job. Same thing with Johnathan. We've got to find that happy medium of what our 340-pounder can handle to still be a dominant force.”
Simon started his career inside at tackle, but he played outside more last season as a sophomore.
Hankins, because of his size, was presumed to be a shoe-in at nose guard, but he spent much of the spring at the other tackle spot and played a little bit of end.
"It's playing to their strengths,” Fickell said. “It's not that he's just big. Johnathan is a natural football player. He might not be winning any 40-yard dashes, but whether he's 340, 350 or maybe 315 some day, he's a natural football player. He plays with good leverage, plays with his hands and for a big guy can move his feet extremely well. He can be a true asset. We've just got to get him into the right position that he can be successful all the time. When you've got a guy who is that good, sometimes you move him around to get your best player on the field and maybe he's not always in the best position, but the best position for the team based on who the other guys are. That's the interesting thing (defensive line coach Jim) Heacock will have to deal with.”
The fourth starter may turn out to Garrett Goebel, who looks like a natural at nose guard. The 290-pounder is a former champion wrestler, as was predecessor Larimore and Fickell, who started a school record 50 games at nose guard for the Buckeyes in the mid-1990s.
“That's one of the unique situations,” Fickell said. “Johnathan obviously is a great guy over the nose. Garrett probably plays his best football over the nose. Does Johnathan move out (to another position) so that you can get your best four guys in there? Those are the things that will be interesting to find out through camp."
Those four may be the front-runners to start the game, but Heacock has long loved to roll in linemen in waves. He intends to play eight regularly, so there will be plenty of playing time up for grabs.
The No. 1 player off the bench - if he doesn’t win a starting job - looks like it will be Adam Bellamy, a 302-pound sophomore who can play anywhere on the line.
"Adam is another guy you've seen things from that he is a big guy, a 305- or 310-pound guy who is every bit as athletic as the 255-pound guys, so he brings a lot of things,” Fickell said. “We're excited about him. How that all falls is going to be the key to find out where those guys play."
Other candidates for playing time this year include senior Evan Blankenship, redshirt freshmen J.T. Moore and Darryl Baldwin and true freshmen Jake Hale, Michael Bennett, Chase Farris, Kenny Hayes and Steve Miller. Senior Solomon Thomas was the backup for Williams at weakside defensive end (Leo) last season but will miss the first five games of 2011 because of an NCAA-mandated suspension.
The coaching staff is also looking to find a role for Melvin Fellows, a sophomore who was a five-star recruit coming out of high school but has had trouble staying out of the training room since making his way to Columbus.
"Melvin's getting much better,” Fickell said. “Melvin's always going to be a little bit of a volume issue with the knee that he's had. Those are little things we don't talk about all the time that coaches have to do a good job of figuring out how you can put him in a situation to be successful. How many days can he be successful, how many reps can he take but yet still get better at football?"