Total scholarship players: 16
Average class: Junior
Average star ranking: 4.06
Total returning starts: 78
2012 outlook: The Ohio State defensive line enters this season with plenty of talent and depth, but how it all shakes out remains to be seen.
Former defensive line coach Jim Heacock preferred to rotate his lines liberally, a practice now common across college football that figures to continue under new position leader Mike Vrabel.
John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy return as starters, but the line could take on a new look from last season when it was stout against the run but left something to be desired in terms of pass rush (23 sacks).
Simon played most of the season out of position at the Leo end spot, a place he spent much of spring as well, but he is more suited for to play on the other side. The staff’s ability to put him there will depend on a few factors, however, not the least of which is the health of Nathan Williams. A senior who missed all but one game last season because of a knee injury, Williams is hopeful of being able to return to being a versatile force capable of rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.
There are options behind Williams, but they are unproven. J.T. Moore and Steve Miller saw limited time at Leo as freshmen last season but failed to make much of an impact. Miller was among the most improved players during spring and offers more speed than Moore, who might be better suited to play on the strong side. Freshman Noah Spence joins the pool of players at Leo this summer and might be the most talented of the bunch, but the five-star recruit will not have much time to prove himself worthy of a spot in the rotation before the season opener against Miami (Ohio).
Simon was nearly unblockable during the spring, but Hankins could be just as dangerous this season. A rising junior from Detroit, Hankins enjoyed a breakout season in 2011 when he proved beyond a shadow of a doubt he is more than just a space eater. Blessed with great quickness and ability to move laterally, the 335-pound Hankins made plays all over (and behind) the line of scrimmage and could join Simon in being considered among college football’s best defenders this fall.
With Simon and Hankins combining for 27 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season, much of the dirty work was left up to nose guard Garrett Goebel and end Adam Bellamy. The two performed admirably and return this season, but they could face a numbers crunch depending on the health of Williams and the emergence of one or more youngsters.
Michael Bennett, who enjoyed a few flashes of productivity (three sacks) last season as a freshman, was among the top performers in spring ball and brings the ability to push the pocket from the 3- or 5-technique. He only became a full-time defensive player last season, so his best football figures to be ahead of him.
Future forecast: Spence is just one of eight first- or second-year players the coaching staff can rely on both for depth this season and contributions down the road.
Fellow five-star prospects Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington join the fold this summer at tackle and end, respectively, while end SeVon Pittman hopes to earn some playing time after missing much of spring practice with a leg injury.
Two members of the class of 2011 – Joel Hale and Chris Carter – offer depth behind Goebel at nose guard. Hale played some in relief inside last season while Carter redshirted on the offensive line.
Another pair of redshirt freshmen offer the potential to help out at 3-technique or 5-technique, but their status is somewhat uncertain at this point in time. Kenny Hayes missed much of spring practice while dealing with headaches, and Chase Farris has been rumored to be a candidate to move to the offensive line despite a solid spring.
At least three top-line players – Simon, Williams and Goebel – will be gone next season, and Hankins could join them if he has the type of year some are expecting, but the cupboard will be far from bare.
Head coach Urban Meyer has already secured verbal commitments from five-star end Joey Bosa, four-star tackles Billy Price and Michael Hill and three-star end Tracy Sprinkle.
Current status: Deep and talented
Future outlook: Possibly brighter than any other position group in college football