Defensive end John Simon, left, making a tackle in the Gator Bowl, has been called by his coach 'as good as any player in college football.'
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COLUMBUS -- Mike Vrabel would have willingly played every second of every game of his 14-year professional career.
One Sunday in 2007, the All-Pro linebacker for the New England Patriots had 13 tackles and three sacks, forced three fumbles, recovered an onside kick, and caught a touchdown pass in a 52-7 dusting of Washington.
So in his new role as Ohio State's defensive line coach, Vrabel is not against riding his top players.
"If I think I have four really good guys and they don't get tired, they'll play the whole game," said Vrabel, a former OSU All-American who coached the linebackers last season. "That's what I'm used to. In the game that I came from, the best players play."
Vrabel recognizes the Buckeyes' defensive line this year is unusually deep.
So deep and capable, in fact, that coach Urban Meyer said this line has the potential to be remembered in the same breath as the overwhelming fronts that helped him win national championships at Florida in 2006 and 2008.
Defensive end John Simon -- a senior Meyer calls "as good as any player in college football" -- and junior defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins are returning All-American candidates while the Buckeyes welcome a wave of four blue-chip freshmen.
Not to mention they just might have a game-changing card up their sleeve.
Nathan Williams, a fifth-year senior defensive end who had 11 career sacks before missing last season with a major knee injury, said he is on course to return for the season opener against Miami University.
"If you look at '06 and '08 [Florida] teams, that's as good a defensive line that you'll [see]," Meyer said. "If that's the measuring stick, if we get Nathan Williams back, I say this group is in that category. If he doesn't, then I think we'll still be good. But I think Nathan brings that much sting to you."
It is tall company. Ohio State fans no doubt would rather forget Florida's defensive line in 2006. A front four bookended by future top-20 NFL picks Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss besieged the Buckeyes' offensive line like no team had before in the 2006 national championship game.
Now, Meyer hopes OSU will be on the giving end, though several questions remain heading into the season.
For one, how many guys will play? In past years, defensive line coach Jim Heacock liked to rotate at least six linemen -- and a similar system could be in place Week 1. Vrabel said his players are not yet in the shape required to play when it counts.
"We're not ready to play a game," he said. "We're doing some things good, but where are we at on the seventh, eighth play of a drive? I see us do things well early, and I think we get tired."
That could open a door for the freshmen. Beyond the top returnees, which also include senior tackle Garrett Goebel and sophomore tackle Michael Bennett, expect five-star recruits Noah Spence and Adolphus Washington to contribute early.
Spence, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound end from Harrisburg, Pa., and Adolphus Washington, a 6-foot-3, 289-pound tackle from Cincinnati, have both turned heads in fall practices. On Wednesday, Washington joined Spence as the fifth Buckeyes freshmen to have his helmet stripe ceremonially removed after meeting a stiff challenge from Vrabel.
"He was going against a first-team offensive lineman on three straight pass rushes in a row in one-on-one," Vrabel said. "I said, 'If you win three in a row, we'll take the stripe off after practice.' He did. I went right to [Meyer] and asked him and he was more than willing to take it off."
Then there is Williams, who stands as the final piece. Williams puts his health at 90 percent as he recovers from microfracture knee surgery and said he is about ready to resume full-contact drills.
"I'm trying to convince them that I'm ready and … " Williams said before pausing and looking upward as a sudden tinge of emotion came over him.
"This has been a long, long process with this. And I want them to know how hard I've been working. I want to prove everyone that I'm still the player that I was before."
Meyer said, "We're counting on him."
If he can, Meyer may have a new benchmark defensive line for future comparison.
BELLAMY LEAVES: Junior defensive lineman Adam Bellamy has left the team because of personal reasons, an OSU spokesman said Friday. Bellamy started 10 games last season and entered fall camp listed as a co-starter at defensive end with Williams.
"We miss him," Vrabel said. "And whenever Adam gets those things taken care of, he's going to be able to come back."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.