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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- At 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds, Ryan Shazier returns to Ohio State for his junior season as an All-Big Ten selection who recorded 115 total tackles, five sacks, and one interception for a touchdown in 2012.
Who will be the next six, remains to be seen.
Due to the graduation of nine players who contributed significantly on defense during the Buckeyes' run towards an undefeated season last year, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is now faced with the task of replacing six starters from his 2012 team's front seven. Shazier is the Buckeyes' lone returning starter at linebacker, and will be playing behind a quartet of new starters on the OSU defensive line, which will no longer be occupied by departed seniors John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel, and Nathan Williams.
Meyer admitted that some players already hold advantages over others, but also said that the competition for starting spots on the Buckeyes' defensive line is far from over with just the first of 13 spring practices in the books.
"I think Noah Spence, just from what he did last year, has probably a leg up. Adolphus Washington has a leg up because he got to play a little bit last year," Meyer said, referring to the duo of sophomores. "The way I see it, it's wide open. There's no set rotation yet. So they're just trying to find their way."
During Tuesday's practice session, Spence and Washington bookended the Buckeyes' first team defensive line, with both players playing defensive end outside of Michael Bennett (defensive tackle) and Joel Hale (nose tackle). There are additional players that Meyer would like to see more out of, particularly those who have yet to do much in their Ohio State careers.
"Steve Miller's been here a while, it's time to go play," Meyer said, referring to the junior defensive end. "Chris Carter- I mean, how much longer is he going to be here? At some point you can't redshirt anymore. I think you can only redshirt once."
Behind their defensive line, the Buckeyes weren't even afforded the the advantage of playing with Shazier, who missed the first day of spring practice while recovering from a sports hernia. In his place, David Perkins served as OSU's first-team Will linebacker, alongside sophomore Joshua Perry, who played Mike linebacker while the Buckeyes practiced in their 4-2-5 nickel formation.
Meyer all but said that Shazier's starting spot is set in stone once he returns to practice, and admitted that he's still holding out hope for junior Curtis Grant to have a breakout season. But as Ohio State learned last year, you can never have enough linebackers, as seen evident by Zach Boren's midseason switch to the position from fullback.
"We're still looking. You have Camren Williams, you have Luke Roberts, and then you have a couple of freshmen popping in here," Meyer said, in reference to blue chip recruits Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson, who will officially arrive on campus this summer.
With Meyer admitting that the Buckeyes will likely play more nickel defense this season based on their schedule, it's also fair to consider the 'star'/nickel back position to be a part of the OSU front seven. On Tuesday, that spot was occupied by freshman Tyvis Powell, who could emerge as a breakout player after redshirting in 2012.
"He's earned that right in the offseason. He didn't earn that right last season. That wasn't because of great effort in September, because he didn't have great effort in September," Meyer said of Powell. "I really like him, by the way. I mean he's a 6'2 guy who's done everything right and is trying."
With nine starters returning on offense- including reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Braxton Miller- it's clear that Meyer's primary concerns will lie with the defense for the remainder of spring practice, and perhaps beyond. The Buckeyes have a national championship team talent-wise, but the second-year OSU head coach knows that none of that will matter if his staff can't find the right players to fill its void up front.
"If we put together a good D-line and linebackers, I think we'll have a good team," Meyer said. "If not, we won't. It's pretty simple."
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