Ohio State defensive line coach Mike Vrabel has an abundance of quality players vying for starting spots, almost enough to put together three full units.
But that doesn’t mean the Buckeyes will sub frequently this year to give their first-stringers a break. Vrabel is hoping they are fit enough that they won’t need one.
“We’re going to play the best guys. If I have four really good guys and they don’t get tired, they’re going to play the whole game,” Vrabel said Friday. “That’s what I’m used to. In the game where I came from, the best players play.”
Vrabel’s stance is a departure from what the Buckeyes have done over the last decade while ranking among the best defenses nationally. They’ve usually rotated no less than eight players on the defensive line.
And the former All-Pro linebacker who won three Super Bowls with the New England Patriots may not end up with four players who have separated themselves from the rest.
The entire starting front four returns intact from last year – John Simon and Adam Bellamy at defensive end, Johnathan Hankins at defensive tackle and Garrett Goebel at nose tackle. Bellamy has missed several practices with the team’s permission while tending to a personal issue, but Michael Bennett (Centerville High School), who lettered as a freshman last year, was moving into a starting role even before Bellamy needed time off.
Nathan Williams, who was a star defensive end in 2010 before sitting out most of last season with a knee injury, is expected back at least by mid-September. And the Buckeyes have four true freshmen who have dazzled at times: Adolphus Washington, Se’Von Pittman, Noah Spence and Tommy Schutt.
Washington, Schutt and Spence are among five newcomers who have had the black strip of tape removed from the helmets, a tradition coach Urban Meyer started that symbolizes they’ve done enough to be considered full-fledged Buckeyes.
Washington (6-3, 290), who crossed that plateau by beating a starting offensive lineman three straight times in a drill, played defensive end in high school but has moved inside.
“He’s grown up. He’s gotten bigger,” Vrabel said. “I don’t know if you’ve seen Adolphus Washington Sr., but he’s a large individual. Dogs with black and white spots have puppies with black and white spots. Adolphus is a big, athletic kid.
“He had frustration with some of the traffic when he first played inside, but I think he likes rushing those guards sometimes. He’s had a lot of success rushing the passer. We just need him to get comfortable in there.”
Vrabel coached linebackers last season before moving to the D-line. He was a star there for the Buckeyes in the mid-1990s, having just been selected for the OSU Hall of Fame.
Asked to compare Meyer with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, Vrabel said: “They want a prepared football team for what you’ll face in a game, and (Meyer) will do anything to get his team prepared – whether that’s replaying a down or replaying a series if it’s not right.
“It’s no different than what coach Belichick used to say: ‘Let’s not confuse activity with achievement.’ Just ‘cause you’re out there breaking a sweat doesn’t necessarily mean you’re getting anything done.”
One to go: First-year cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs has three players he considers starters: Bradley Roby, Doran Grant and Travis Howard. He’d like to have at least one more.
“Corners can’t play 75 snaps a game. You really need four. They have to be able to go out there and be rested and fresh and ready to go,” he said.
Combs was a two-year letterman on the University of Dayton football team in the early 1980s. He had a successful 16-year run as coach at Colerain High School before joining Cincinnati’s staff for five years.
None of that, though, prepared him for the unrelenting pace of preseason practice under Meyer.
“I’ve coached a long time, and I’ve never seen a training camp this tough, this hard, this physical, this demanding,” he said. “And it’s very exciting to watch how our kids respond. I don’t think you can break them.”
Tight end update: With Jake Stoneburner having moved to wide receiver, Nick Vannett and Jeff Heuerman are dueling for the starting spot.
“I don’t want to give away their strengths and weaknesses … but they really complement each other very, very well,” tight ends coach Tim Hinton said. “They’re competing with each other for the job, you but don’t see that in our room. It’s, hey, I hope he does well because that means our team will do well.”
Moving up: Spence and cornerback Devan Bogard were the first freshmen to get their black stripes removed. Offensive lineman Taylor Decker (Vandalia Butler) joined them this week along with Washington and Schutt.
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