When Urban Meyer looks back on the best defensive lines that he's coached, one in particular stands out to the Ohio State head coach.
Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, it's the same one that stands out to them, but for all the wrong reasons.
While Chris Leak, Tim Tebow and Percy Harvin may have been the headliners, it was really Florida's D-line that led Meyer and the Gators to the 2006 BCS National Championship.
Nobody knows that better than Ohio State, who saw Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Troy Smith sacked five times, held to minus-29 rushing yards and complete just 4-of-14 pass attempts in what was ultimately a 41-14 Gators victory over the Buckeyes in the national title game.
Jarvis Moss, Derrick Harvey and Ray McDonald. Those were the names that Ohio State fans heard early and often on that fateful January 2007 night in Glendale, Arizona—three players who would each go onto enjoy starting stints in the NFL.
Add in future NFLers Steven Harris, Joe Cohen and Jermaine Cunningham and it's easy to see that Meyer's 2006 defensive line was his best, as Ohio State knows from first-hand experience.
"I had an idea," Meyer responded when asked if he had an inkling that his 2006 Gators defensive line was going to have its way with the Buckeyes. "But not to that extreme."
Eight years later, that national title game remains a sore spot for some Ohio State fans, even after Meyer traded in his Florida blue and orange for scarlet and gray. But good news for the Buckeyes could be on the way, as the 13-year head coach believes that his 2014 defensive line in Columbus has a chance to challenge his 2006 unit for the best he's ever had.
"This one, if they all perform and stay healthy, could be at that level," Meyer said. "It's game-changers upfront."
Those "game-changers" include CBSSports.com's top-ranked defensive tackle for the 2015 NFL draft in Michael Bennett, a pair of former 247Sports 5-star prospects in Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington and arguably the most dominant freshman defensive lineman in Ohio State history in now-sophomore Joey Bosa. Rather than face the wrath of Meyer's recruiting prowess, the Buckeyes are now benefitting from it, perhaps in no place more than their defensive front-four.
The elder statesman of the group is Bennett, the lone senior who also finds himself on no less than four major preseason award watch lists. The 6'2", 288-pounder recorded 42 tackles—11.5 of which came for a loss—and seven sacks in 2013, but Meyer believes that the Centerville, Ohio, native's best football is still ahead of him.
"He played the first five or six games like an All-Big Ten player," Meyer said of Bennett's 2013 campaign. "The last half of the season he had some shoulder issues and did not play like that. This is his last call. He could be as high as an early draft pick to a free agent. That's up to him."
The same could be said for Washington, who entered last season with sky-high expectations but was ultimately replaced in the starting lineup by Bosa after suffering a groin injury in the second game of the year. Limited to situational packages upon his return, Washington never regained his starting status, but the 6'4", 288-pounder now finds himself penciled in as one of Ohio State's starting defensive tackles.
Moving Washington back inside from strong side defensive end was a move made to help bolster the Buckeyes' pass rush, but the Cincinnati, Ohio, native still has much to prove to Meyer. Washington's 2013 campaign—which included 36 tackles and two sacks—was an apparent step back in the progress of his college career, but 2014 offers him a shot at redemption.
"Adolphus is the one that hasn't played up to [his potential]," Meyer said. "If he ever gets it all figured out, he could be as good as any I've ever had. He's still a work in progress."
While Washington remains the lone question mark on—and perhaps key to—Ohio State's defensive line, Meyer knows what he has in Spence, an All-Big Ten performer as a sophomore who recorded a team-high eight sacks in 2013. Only Ohio State will be without the 6'3", 252-pound defensive end for the first two games of his junior season, as he continues to serve a suspension stemming from a failed drug test at last season's Big Ten Championship Game.
Spence, who like Bennett projects as a first round pick next spring, is a big reason why Ohio State's defensive line finds itself so highly thought of heading into 2014. But the junior will have to return to his 2013 form following his suspension if the Buckeyes' D-line is going to live up to Meyer's lofty praise.
And then there's Bosa, who Meyer said at Big Ten media days could be "the best of the bunch."
"And he's only a sophomore," the third-year Ohio State head coach also reminded reporters.
Indeed he is, but the 6'5", 285-pound defensive end hardly looked like a freshman a season ago, when he racked up 44 tackles and 7.5 sacks en route to earning FWAA Freshman All-American honors. It's rare that a freshman defensive lineman starts at Ohio State and even rarer that one makes the impact that Bosa did last year, which is why so many in Columbus are excited about his seemingly limitless future.
If Bosa can build on his already promising career, Spence can bounce back from his suspension and Washington and Bennett can find the consistency that their head coach is asking for, then the Buckeyes could be in store for a season as special as the one that Meyer's dominant Gators D-line helped wreck at Ohio State in 2006. But Bennett, the unit's unquestioned leader, isn't interested in dealing with ifs, as he'd rather see an absolute come to fruition.
"It shouldn't be a question that we're the best at the end of the season," Bennett said. "It should just be obvious."
If Bennett's right, then Meyer will have a new defensive line to put at the top of his list.
"You think about those four starters, they're all extremely highly recruited guys. They're fast, we want fast players. Now we have [new defensive line coach] Larry Johnson coaching them. That should be a real strength," Meyer said. "They have a shot to be in that same conversation."
*All quotes, unless noted otherwise, obtained first-hand.
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