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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Projecting the success of a football team can be difficult to do, especially when the season is nearly six months away. Schedules change from year to year, as do rosters, and the trajectory of individual players.
Nevertheless, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was confident in stating that how his second Buckeyes team fares will be dependent on the development of the team's defensive front-seven.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said following Ohio State's first spring practice session on March 5. "If not, we won't. It's pretty simple."
There's really no reason for projections of the 2013 Buckeyes to be made any more difficult than that.
Offensively, Ohio State returns nine starters to a unit that ranked 10th in the nation in rushing in 2012, and should only improve with the growth of quarterback Braxton Miller and the additions of freshmen playmakers Jalin Marshall and Dontre Wilson. In the secondary, three of the Buckeyes' four starters return from a season ago, with Doran Grant filling the void at cornerback left by Travis Howard.
It is in the front-seven where Meyer is faced with the task of replacing six departed players, with weakside linebacker Ryan Shazier being the only returning starter in 2013. But after 15 spring practice sessions, it's been so far, so good when it comes to the progress of the Buckeyes' defensive line and linebackers.
In fact, it was the Ohio State defensive line that stole the show in the team's annual spring game, with three defensive linemen combining for eight sacks in the glorified scrimmage. Seven of those sacks came from Adolphus Washington (4) and Noah Spence (3), and what's scarier is that defensive line coach Mike Vrabel believes that duo of sophomore defensive ends played even better in scrimmages that were closed to the public.
"We approached every Saturday scrimmage as defensive linemen as if it was a game for us," Vrabel said of Washington and Spence. "Throughout the scrimmages and Saturdays, they were productive and that's what most of their grade in my evaluation came on."
Inside at defensive tackle and Vrabel was pleased with the work of Michael Bennett, who could have been a key contributor as a sophomore in 2012, but failed to consistently crack the rotation as he healed from a preseason groin injury.
"Michael had a good spring. He was consistent. He was there every day. He didn't miss any time with bumps and bruises, which is something that he's done in the past," Vrabel said. "He was a leader for us. He gave us a physical presence inside. His understanding was very high of what he was being asked to do. He did some good things."
Vrabel was similarly impressed with the growth of junior-to-be Joel Hale, who is the current leader to replace Garrett Goebel at the Buckeyes' unglamorous nose guard position.
"Joel Hale improved," Vrabel said. "I think we saw things from Joel Hale that we hadn't seen as far as being able to play with some body language, being able to play with some extension on blockers."
Behind its front four, Ohio State knows what it has in Shazier, a first-team All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore in 2012, but what the Buckeyes have at their other two linebacker spots remained a mystery heading into spring.
Last year, it was Curtis Grant who emerged as one of Ohio State's breakout linebackers in the spring, but the then-sophomore lost his starting spot just three games into the 2012 season. The former five-star prospect again leaves spring practice penciled into the Buckeyes' starting middle linebacker spot, but OSU linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is confident that he'll hold onto it this time, after he led all Buckeye defenders with eight tackles in the spring game.
"Curtis has always had that energy and passion to play the game of football," Fickell said. "You saw that come back, you saw him love to play the game, you saw his passion and energy. All the things that he needs to work on, when he's on the field and he's playing like that with that passion and energy- those things, they shine above the things that he really needs to work on."
At the other open linebacker spot, sophomore Joshua Perry emerged as the early favorite to replace Etienne Sabino, although the Buckeyes rarely played three linebackers at a time in 2012. More than that, Fickell not only believes that Ohio State has developed some depth at linebacker, but that despite its inexperience, the Buckeyes front-seven is in good shape heading into the 2013 season.
"It's an exciting time when you've got a young group. And I think we saw that," Fickell said. "We saw that not just with the linebackers, more importantly, we saw that with the defensive line. It's a tough program that pushes you hard, and I think we saw guys that are really starting to grasp that, a little bit of the different leadership styles and things and I think it's been really good."
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