Austin WardESPN Staff Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The possibility of the unit returning completely intact was discussed in Ohio State’s defensive line meeting room, but no one really thought it would happen.
The reigning Big Ten defensive lineman of the year, degree in hand, would have to choose to stick around for his senior year. But that’s exactly what Tyquan Lewis decided to do.
Another junior who had proven himself as a tenacious pass rusher and playmaker up front would have the chance to cash in early and start getting paid. But Jalyn Holmes elected to put that off for a year as well.
And then the redshirt sophomore who might have scouts potentially drooling the most thanks to his athleticism, versatility and still untapped potential would have to resist that temptation also. But even before the season ended, Sam Hubbard had gathered his information and already made up his mind that he would be back.
What looked like a longshot was instead reality when the Buckeyes reported back for winter conditioning last week. And a group that anchored one of the Big Ten’s and nation’s best defenses in 2016 is suddenly looking even more dangerous heading into 2017.
“We had talked about it together,” Hubbard said. “But we actually didn’t all expect to have the exact same room as we did last year. Nobody really expected that because that rarely happens. Obviously we love playing with each other and the fact that we all wanted to come back, we’re all happy.
“Now that it has happened, we’ve got a lot to prove and a lot of responsibility to perform like one of the best units on the team.”
Holmes emerged as a disruptive force in the backfield with 8.5 tackles for loss. Hubbard showed he was truly settling in as a lineman after starting his career as a defensive back, racking up 46 tackles — eight of which went for a loss. And Lewis proved he was more than a product of playing on the opposite edge of Joey Bosa, backing up his productive sophomore campaign with eight more sacks a year ago.
Still, expecting everyone to pass on the lure of the NFL seemed like a long shot. Who knew a 31-0 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff would become one of the deciding factors?
“There were a lot of things I took into account,” Lewis said. “But the main thing was coming back because this is something special here. I love playing with these guys, and I didn’t want to go out with that bitter taste in my mouth.
“And now we’re thinking about what we might be capable of all the time. We all know what we’re capable of and what we can do.”
The Buckeyes might only be scratching the surface of their potential with a group that also has Nick Bosa coming off a true freshman campaign that featured five sacks, tackle Dre’Mont Jones coming off a breakout season with a unit-leading 52 tackles and the potential to get starter Tracy Sprinkle back after he was lost for the season in the opener a year ago. And it also doesn’t include the backlog of talent that hasn’t yet had a chance to make much of an impact yet, or a recruiting class that currently has three ESPN 300 defensive line commitments.
The only question might be whether the Buckeyes actually have too much talent in the trenches.
“No, I don’t think so,” Hubbard said. “[Defensive line coach Larry] Johnson is really good at putting people on the field with specific skill sets when they need to be used and utilizing everybody’s skill sets. I think everybody will get a shot as long as it’s earned, and when you get an opportunity, make the most of it.
“I feel bad for some young guys that might not play as much as they had anticipated with all these older guys like us coming back, but they’re going to keep pushing us, and we’re going to keep pushing them.”
The Buckeyes at the top won’t need too much prodding as they get back to work with the memory of the blowout loss to Clemson still fresh in their minds.
And if the way it ended helped influence a couple decisions to return, the NFL’s loss is clearly Ohio State’s gain.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, and it’s not going to come easy,” Hubbard said. “But we’ve got the tools and the people in the room to do it, and we’ve just got to get to work. We’re not just going to show up next season and be lights-out better than we were this season.
“But, you know, it could be scary.”