COLUMBUS: All anybody around Ohio State wants to talk about is the spread offense being molded by new coach Urban Meyer.
Tucked away in the corner of the Woody Hayes practice field in the August heat is the real backbone of the 18th-ranked Buckeyes.
John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel, Adam Bellamy and Nathan Williams aren't household names — even in households with scarlet-and-gray fan caves. Yet it is the defensive front that determines how rapidly the Buckeyes can erase an awful 2011 and start looking to the future.
No one around the program wavers on the strength of the team.
"It's going to be up front. We know that. It's got to be," said Luke Fickell, interim coach of last year's 6-7 team and returning as the defensive co-coordinator this time around. "Those guys have got some experience and we've got a little bit of depth there."
Funny, but the offense is helping the defensive line get better. Every day in August, the front wall has had to not only shut down but also keep up with Meyer's hurry-up offense. That has served to get the unit ready for many of the spread attacks already in place in the Big Ten, but has also helped to get those five — who average 6-foot-4 and 281 pounds — in extraordinary condition.
"Even our big guys have to run around constantly, not getting breaks, not subbing in," said Simon, the "Leo" end. "So we're definitely going to be one of the best conditioned defensive lines, best conditioned defenses, in the country. That'll help us."
They are far from cookie-cutter copies of each other. The soft-spoken Goebel fills the hole at nose tackle alongside the talkative and popular Hankins, dubbed "Big Hank" as much for his potential (11 tackles for loss last year) as his 317 pounds. Williams, who is penciled in as co-starter with Bellamy at the other end, barely played last season and didn't participate in spring drills because of microfracture surgery on his knee. He appears to be making progress and could be ready early in the season.
Bellamy and Hankins are both juniors with 26 games already under their sizable belts. The backups include big sophomore Michael Bennett and the intriguing Chris Carter, a 6-4, 358-pounder who was originally recruited as an offensive lineman but has been switched to the other side. He's still learning the position, but has shown flashes of being a force.
Simon is the clear-cut leader of the group, a confident and yet accommodating quarterback-terrorizer who led the Buckeyes a year ago with seven sacks and 16 tackles for negative yardage. He and Goebel were both among the top vote-getters for captain earlier this week.
No wonder Meyer has been effusive in his praise of Simon and the rest of the linemen.
"(No.) 54 is as good a player as there is in college football," the first-year Buckeyes coach said of Simon.
What's more, those veterans are being pushed by an all-star cast of freshmen that includes blue-chippers Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington.
"We've got a lot of depth, a lot of good freshmen who have all the physical skills and are playing well right now," Goebel said. "They've just got to learn the defense a little more, take that next step. It should be a good year."
How much pressure the big guys up front apply can make a thin group of linebackers and a solid secondary look worlds better.
"The fight in the trenches is where defense starts," said safety C.J. Barnett. "With Johnny Simon and Big Hank in there, it makes the job easier for everybody else."
The line can also take a lot of heat off Meyer's new offense.
"We aim to be the best in the country," Bennett said. "I think every D-line says that but we honestly can reach that."
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