COLUMBUS – It didn’t get the attention of his spread offense. It wasn’t attached to a memorable image, like saying he wanted assistant coaches who coached like their hair was on fire.
But very soon after Urban Meyer was hired as Ohio State’s football coach in 2011, he said one of the most important elements in building a great football team was having a strong defensive line.
Seven years later, Ohio State has a defensive line so talented and so deep that it has been called the best in college football.
It is a label both the players and Meyer have embraced.
“We definitely care about that because who wouldn’t want to be known as the best defensive line, not only this year but in history,” defensive end Tyquan Lewis said.
Lewis, the 2016 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, surprised some people by returning for his senior year instead of going into the NFL draft.
That decision gave Ohio State four standout defensive ends – Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Nick Bosa and Lewis.
Hubbard and Holmes were honorable mention All-Big Ten last season and Bosa had five sacks as a freshman in a season in which he was brought along slowly after ACL surgery his senior year of high school.
“We’ll be as good as anybody in America at defensive end,” Meyer said during spring practice.
The interior line is good and deep, too, with players like Dre’Mont Jones, Robert Landers and Tracy Sprinkle, a starter until he suffered a season-ending torn patellar tendor injury in the first quarter of last year’s opener against Bowling Green. Michael Hill eventually could join them if he returns from a suspension.
It wasn’t just players that Meyer recruited to build this impressive front line of the Buckeyes’ defense. Since 2014, the line has been coached by Larry Johnson who, like his current defensive line, has also been called the best in the country at what he does.
He has coached seven first-round NFL draft picks at OSU and Penn State and eight of his players have been named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano gives the defensive line and Johnson high grades.
“The defensive line is really good. I think we have the best defensive line coach in America in Larry Johnson. He knows how to keep them all involved. We should never have a tired defensive lineman out there if, God willing, we stay healthy,” Schiano said.
Despite all the talk about being the best, Ohio State’s linemen say they won’t get caught up in it.
“We talk about it in the meeting room and it’s more of a motivation thing than hyping up our heads. Coach J (Johnson) says if that’s what they’re going to say about us then we’ve got to work and actually achieve it,” Hubbard said.
Holmes said, “You want praise. I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t care. But at the end of the day you have to know that’s just preseason stuff. At the end of the day you want the postseason awards and you don’t really care about the preseason stuff.
“I feel like we’ve been keeping a real humble mind and working to push to be better,” he said.
If Ohio State is going to be the best defensive line in the country, sacking the quarterback is probably the area where it needs to show the most improvement.
OSU’s 28 sacks last season ranked seventh in the Big Ten and 58th nationally. Lewis led the Buckeyes with eight and Bosa’s five were second.
Those 28 sacks were the lowest total during Meyer’s five seasons at OSU an 17 short of the highest total of his tenure, 45 in 2014. That was two short of the school record of 47.
Schiano offered the theory during a Fox.com interview earlier this year that Ohio State emphasized disrupting the pass rather than hitting the quarterback last season as a possible explanation for the low sack numbers.
Johnson said during spring practice that his defensive linemen just needed to be quicker once the ball was snapped to pump up the sacks numbers.
“What you saw is that we weren’t taking that first step fast enough across the line of scrimmage. At the end of the day we have to get the quarterback on his back. We have to rev up our pass rush,” Johnson said.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.