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Ohio State defensive line adopting a pack mentality to replace departed starters

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OSU then-redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) celebrates after a fumble recovery during a game against Penn State on Oct. 17 at Ohio Stadium. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

OSU then-redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard (6) celebrates after a fumble recovery during a game against Penn State on Oct. 17 at Ohio Stadium. Credit: Samantha Hollingshead | Photo Editor

The change in seasons is not the only change this spring at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. With 22 players having departed the program, the remaining players and staff for the Ohio State football team are left trying to fill those voids.

A lot of that change can be seen in the defensive line. A gaping hole at the right side of that line is leaving many wondering how OSU will fare without Joey Bosa. Bosa, a two-time winner of the Big Ten’s Smith-Brown Defensive Lineman of the Year award and a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, leaves big shoes to fill.

OSU defensive line coach Larry Johnson said he believes that the new contributors don’t need to be carbon copies of the player they’re stepping in for but can find ways to make themselves successful in different ways.

“My philosophy is that you don’t try to replace them, you just try and find a guy to raise their game to the next level,” Johnson said. “I think the talent is there, and they want to be very good. What I do as a coach is to try and get them to raise their game.”

Redshirt sophomore defensive end Sam Hubbard is one such player expected to raise his game to the next level. The 6-foot-5 Cincinnati native is well aware that the ghost of No. 97’s shadow will be looming over the defensive line all season long, but he’s trying to avoid that pressure.

“I don’t want to be Joey Bosa,” Hubbard said. “He’s a great player, but I just want to be the best Sam Hubbard.”

Fortunately for Hubbard, he was able to accumulate enough experience last season to set him up for his newfound spotlight. Hubbard, who recorded 6.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, was in the rotation, often giving Bosa a few downs off or even playing on opposite sides of the line.

His biggest test, however, was when he replaced Bosa after the starter was ejected in the first quarter against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. From that point forward, Hubbard said he knew he needed to be a leader of the unit.

“I used to watch the older guys, and now the younger guys are watching me,” Hubbard said. “There are great players that came before us, and if we have any drop off, then our possibility of losing the game is higher. We have to continue at the level of play that is expected at Ohio State.”

One of the younger guys who could be a factor next year has a familiar surname: Nick Bosa.

Before he even takes a snap donning scarlet and gray, one of the most highly touted recruits in the nation already has exceedingly high expectations. Although Nick Bosa is still on the road to recovery after sustaining a torn ACL as a high school senior, Johnson said he believes that once the younger Bosa gets back to work after his injury, the sky’s the limit.

“He is so far ahead in his rehab right now, and we are talking and communicating. I am getting great video of what he is doing,” Johnson said.

Johnson and his staff have yet to make a decision on where on the defensive line Nick Bosa will play. His older brother played on the outside, but the incoming freshman could find himself on the interior.

“He can do both,” Johnson said. “We are going to see what’s the best fit for him and put the best 11 guys on the field. If he is a part of the best 11, we are going for it.”

Alongside Hubbard is Tyquan Lewis, a redshirt junior defensive end from North Carolina. After playing through a shoulder injury last year, Lewis is spending his spring rehabilitating to get back and lead the younger guys. For Lewis, though, it’s not about one guy but the whole unit defensively.

“We all have to play within ourselves but understand that we are playing together as one,” Lewis said. “The expectations for all of us are high because this is big-time football at a big-time university, so we want to make sure everyone gets a piece of the pie.”

The culture that Johnson is helping bring to the defensive line is to limit the expectations of the individual but heighten expectations of the unit. This kind of collectivist thinking is influencing the players to think of themselves as one of 11. Hubbard, a primary leader of the defensive line, said he sets the example for not only the younger guys but for the entire defense.

“I just want to never lose a rep, be a disruption, make plays, do my job, and be my one-eleventh part of the defense that everyone can rely on,” Hubbard said.

OSU is set to make its return to the field on Saturday in the annual intrasquad spring game. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at Ohio Stadium following the men’s lacrosse game against Michigan.

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