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Diversity may be the secret to Ohio State’s outstanding defensive line

Each player brings a unique skill to the table. And the line has benefited as a whole.

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Oklahoma Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

“Depth helps. You want to have the depth to play a lot of guys, but the most important thing is getting a lot of different pieces and getting them all to fit together to take advantage of their skill set.”

-Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson, via Dan Murphy, ESPN

Larry Johnson may be one of the most prolific defensive line coaches in the history of college football, churning out players like Courtney Brown, Tamba Hali and, more recently, Joey Bosa. But while any one of these individuals would make a near-perfect recruiting pitch, the veteran coach of two decades knows that unique skills--not cookie-cutter repeats of the same players--are what have built truly great defensive lines at Ohio State and Penn State. And it is this cumulation of distinct abilities that has made Ohio State’s defensive lines one of the most formidable in the nation heading into this season.

The philosophy surrounding talent on the defensive line underwent a shift several years ago, as offensive lines began to account for individual, dominant pass rushers. Johnson recognized this change, and began to add more diversity to his repertoire, which enabled his line to respond to the myriad of looks the offense might give.

That diversity is exemplified by the Ohio State defensive line. Anchored by defensive end Tyquan Lewis, each player brings a unique skillset that stops the offense regardless of situation. Lewis himself is an expert at stopping the run, while fellow end Sam Hubbard (who played safety in high school) can either rush the quarterback or drop into coverage on a given play. The same goes for the interior of the line, with players like Dre’Mont Jones, a converted end who is now slotted at tackle. And with so much depth across the line, each individual player can stay fresh with fewer plays per game, while going in when they will be most impactful.

Johnson uses examples of these skills in his recruiting pitch, by identifying what each individual brings to the table and how he would develop that skill to fill a role on the defensive line. And the five-star recruits have followed.

“Even after some weaknesses were laid bare in recent games, it’s clear that Ohio State can have a great offensive line in 2017. Having four returning starters certainly helps.”

-Ryan Ginn, Land of 10

Ohio State’s offensive line should be one of the top returning position groups in 2017. With four returning starters, including All-American Billy Price, the team is already an experienced unit. However, the loss of fellow All-American Pat Elflein, who earned the Rimington Trophy last year as the nation’s best center, looms large. Price will also be replicating Elflein’s shift to center from right guard, with the battle to replace Price still ongoing. Redshirt junior Demetrius Knox and redshirt sophomore Matthew Burrell are the main contenders. Both Knox and Burrell saw limited action last season. The Buckeyes are also bringing on Wyatt Davis, a five-star recruit from California, but it is unlikely he’ll get a starting role straight away.

Senior left tackle Jamarco Jones is entering his second season as a starter after earning second team All-Big Ten honors last season. On the other side of the line, junior right tackle Isaiah Prince, who had some struggles last season, is also coming into his second year as a starter. Finally, sophomore left guard Michael Jordan started all 13 games as a true freshman last season on his way to freshman All-American honors.

Price is a natural anchor to the unit, and will bring stability even from his new position. Coincidentally, Price practiced at center for much of the spring leading into the 2014 season. The left side of the line is similarly solid behind Jones and Jordan, who formed an effective duo last season. And while Prince has at times been a liability, Price has acknowledged that those types of struggles are common for a first-year starter. A former four-star recruit, the 6-foot-7 Prince has massive potential and, if Price’s comments are accurate, he will be a force to be reckoned with as he settles into his second season as a starter.

“Harbaugh won’t be working in any extra Ohio State prep a week early. Not with the Badgers, the clear favorite in the Big Ten West, to get ready for.”

-Doug Lesmerises,

If there was ever a time that Michigan truly had the upper hand on Ohio State in The Game, it was last season. A senior-heavy Michigan team faced off against a far-more youthful Buckeye squad that returned just six starters from 2015. Now, the tables have turned, as the Wolverines bring back a paltry five starters, and will be relying on the talents of freshmen and sophomores for most position groups. These young players are members of head coach Jim Harbaugh’s dual top-10 recruiting classes from 2016 and 2017. Previously, Harbaugh had been relying primarily on Brady Hoke recruits. Even as Ohio State rebuilds its entire secondary, it still brings back significantly more experience than Michigan. The question will be if the young Wolverines will be able to catch up.

Fortunately for Michigan, however, the Wolverines will have 11 games to prep for Ohio State, including a Week 1 matchup against what is expected to be a tough Florida squad in Arlington. Like Oklahoma did last year for the Buckeyes, a tough game early helps to legitimize the young team and give valuable experience in high-pressure situations. On the flip side, the Wolverines will also face Wisconsin the week prior to Ohio State. Wisconsin is the preseason favorite in the Big Ten West, and a projected top-15 team. It will be a quick-turn for Michigan, akin to Ohio State’s back-to-back matchups against Michigan State and Michigan held the last two seasons. This season, Ohio State faces Illinois Week 11.

Despite the lack of returning starters and the tough schedule, Michigan does still have the advantage of the game being played in Ann Arbor. And this rivalry series, despite being severely lopsided in favor of Ohio State, has been played closer than it should have been at times, with the Buckeyes winning by five points or less in three of the last five years.