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Tracy Sprinkle brings even more depth to Ohio State’s loaded defensive line

After making an early exit last season, Sprinkle is expected back as a contributor at defensive tackle.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Notre Dame vs Ohio State Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“He is going to be a bonus for us coming back. I actually think he is pretty close. We are still monitoring him a little bit. He got some work right down at the end of spring ball but now we will go full speed and see what happens.”

-Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, via Tim Shoemaker, Eleven Warriors

The terror that is the Ohio State defensive line just got a whole lot more frightening--at least for opposing offenses. With four of the nation’s elite defensive ends in a rotation on the line, the interior members of the line haven’t been getting quite as much attention. In fact, the return of a breakout star coming back from injury simply adds fuel to an already raging fire of excitement surrounding the big guys up front on defense.

Fifth-year senior Tracy Sprinkle was injured in just the first few minutes of the 2016 season in Ohio State’s opener against Bowling Green, tearing his right patellar tendon and missing the rest of the season after surgery in the fall. To make matters worse, it was Sprinkle’s first start at Ohio State, after earning playing time in all 13 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2015.

After Sprinkle’s injury, then-redshirt freshman Dre’Mont Jones stepped up and became a breakout star himself, recording 52 tackles on the season and cementing his role on the defensive line heading into 2017, even with Sprinkle’s return. Urban Meyer called Jones “a really fine player” during spring practice, even on the level of the likes of Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Nick Bosa.

Though Sprinkle was still limited throughout spring practice, he has shown promise to make a full comeback by the fall as he continues to get healthy. He will then likely fall into an already-deep rotation on the line. Larry Johnson, the defensive line coach, favors such rotations of up to 10 linemen, keeping players fresh throughout a game. He certainly seems to have many of the pieces already in place heading into fall camp, and the addition of Sprinkle can only help to provide added speed and depth to the line.

“And although the buckeyes already have games scheduled against the likes of Texas, Notre Dame, TCU and Oregon in the coming years, several potential dream matchups still loom.”

-Ben Axelrod, Land of 10

Ohio State has never been a program to shy away from premiere matchups. This year’s Week 2 matchup against Oklahoma is a case in point. The departure of deputy athletic director Martin Jarmond, who was the mastermind behind Ohio State’s scheduling for the last eight years, means that the Buckeyes will need to find some new blood to orchestrate the same high-profile scheduling, but the next 10 seasons have already been pretty well thought out. For instance, Ohio State had TCU slated for next September in Arlington, Texas, Oregon in 2020 and 2021 and Notre Dame and Texas in 2022 and 2023.

Even so, there is always room for more. Top matchups against powerhouses mean a better strength of schedule heading into conference play, and a better shot of earning a berth in the College Football Playoff.

Georgia presents an obvious opportunity. It has become a recruiting hotbed for Urban Meyer and company, with Vonn Bell and Raekwon McMillan hailing from Rossville and Hinesville, respectively. Similarly, Florida State could be a likely opponent, given Meyer’s penchant for heading down south for the best players in Florida. With the Seminole’s liking for scheduling similarly tough opponents (they open against Alabama this fall), it would be a perfect fit for the Buckeyes in coming years. Out west, UCLA represents a solid target in the Pac-12 to boost recruiting while avoiding USC, who the Buckeyes faced in a home-and-home in 2008-09.

Beyond recruiting, facing foes like Clemson and Alabama would lend credence to Ohio State’s status as a consistent top-five program by facing other similar heavyweights. Especially with Clemson’s blanking of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl this past season, revenge would be quite a motivating factor to schedule the Tigers. And Meyer’s rivalry with Nick Saban in terms of recruiting could help to fuel the unlikely out-of-conference matchup of Ohio State and Alabama.

“The cutthroat East Division has plenty of high-powered matchups slated for the coming fall both in league play and in nonconference games earlier in the season.”

-Dan Murphy, ESPN

Once again, the Big Ten East looks to be the powerhouse division in the conference heading into the fall, with Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan all projected to be in the top-10. Wisconsin, the highest-rated representative from the Big Ten West, is lower in ranking projections than all three of the East’s giants.

As a result, most of the circled games in the Big Ten season are matchups involving Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan. For starters, the Buckeyes’ October 28 matchup against Penn State in Columbus is possibly the most important matchup in the conference heading into the season, pitting last year’s Big Ten champion against the conference’s representative in the College Football Playoff. To heighten the intrigue, Penn State will be coming off of its own meeting with Michigan in Happy Valley the week before. Obviously, with Ohio State playing Michigan in Ann Arbor in the final week of the season, whoever comes out on top of the three teams will likely have an impressive resume and a probable shot at a spot in the College Football Playoff.

However, the top matchups aren’t limited solely to conference games. Ohio State’s September 9 date with Oklahoma in Columbus will be a top-10 rematch after the Buckeyes’ three-touchdown victory last season. While the passing attack which was so impressive against the Sooners waned as the Buckeyes headed into conference play, a revised offense, led by co-offensive coordinators Kevin Wilson and Ryan Day, will be of interest in game two.

Penn State has an early non-conference test of its own the same the afternoon of September 9, just ahead of Ohio State’s night game, when it faces Pittsburgh at home. Last season, the Nittany Lions lost by three to the Panthers in game two after quarterback Trace McSorley threw a pick late in the fourth quarter. An impressive performance against Pitt could help to give some early credibility to a team which was so impressive at the close of 2016.