The bar will not be lowered.
A year ago, Ohio State’s loaded defensive line wanted to be known as not just the best defensive line in the country or the best in Ohio State’s history. It wanted to be regarded as the best college line ever.
The Buckeyes’ defensive collapses against Oklahoma and Iowa put a dent in that aspiration, but Ohio State’s line often was overwhelming. Ask Southern California’s Sam Darnold about that.
But defensive ends Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard and Jalyn Holmes are gone, as is underappreciated defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle. It would be natural to expect a bit of a drop-off in expectations as a result.
The returning linemen and position coach Larry Johnson disagree.
“We talk about it all the time,” sophomore defensive end Chase Young said Thursday after Ohio State’s second practice of the spring. “We can be and we will be the best D-line in the nation.”
Young flashed his five-star ability as a backup last season with 3½ sacks. He will rotate with Jonathon Cooper and Nick Bosa at end, supplemented by junior Jashon Cornell, who has been shifted back from tackle to his original position.
At tackle, Dre’Mont Jones and Robert Landers are the projected starters, with plenty of returning depth and an infusion of first-year players.
“It’s still really early and we haven’t put the pads on yet,” Landers said. “But we’re fast, we’re athletic, we’re young, we’re agile, we go hard, we’re tough.
“We’ve got very big shoes to fill, and the goal is always to enhance and make the goals from last year 10 times better going into the following year. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re further along than we would have expected.”
At end, Young and Cooper will get more reps this spring than Bosa, who would have been a high first-round pick if he had been eligible to declare for the NFL draft.
Young is considered the next big star on the defensive line.
“I learned from the best and now I’m trying to be better than the best,” he said.
He’ll get plenty of attention this spring.
“He looks good,” Johnson said. “Now he’s starting to learn how to really play football now. He’s going to go from about 25 reps (per game) to 50-60 reps. I want to soak him really hard because I have to get him ready to play.”
Cooper also was a five-star recruit, but the Gahanna native was a little slower to break into the rotation.
“This is his moment right now,” Johnson said, “and he is doing everything he can to make sure he grabs it.”
Cooper said he is ready to, and said he and his fellow ends are undaunted by the challenge of succeeding Lewis, Hubbard and Holmes.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, so much,” Cooper said. “Those are our big brothers. Me, Chase and Nick all understand the role and responsibility we have to carry on the ‘Rushmen’ tradition. I don’t feel it’s too much pressure for any of us.”
Ohio State used four ends in the “Rushmen” package last year on passing downs. This year, Jones is expected to be used in that situation, which was a factor in his decision not to declare for the NFL draft.
“I think he’s probably the best three-technique rusher in the Big Ten,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes the pieces are in place for the Buckeyes to build on last year. He said his unit started a video on Thursday titled, “The Journey.”
“We defined what a journey is,” Johnson said. “It’s to finish. This is the new journey for these guys, something they’ve never done before.
“What a great moment for these guys to continue to stretch the bar, to continue to stretch our brand as a defensive line front — to be the greatest ever. That’s not something you say. It’s something you have to chase.”
The chase has begun.