As pregame rituals go, this is one Michael Bennett does not want to repeat.
Just an hour or so before most of Ohio State’s games last season, the 285-pound defensive lineman out of Centerville High School would strip off his Buckeyes uniform, lower himself into a hot tub and start popping ibuprofen.
When he’d finally try to rejoin his teammates just before the game, he’d stretch and hope he was able to move — not to mention play — without too much pain.
As it was, he missed one-third of the season — four games — with a pulled groin muscle he suffered in the first week of preseason camp and then re-aggravated in warm-ups just before the season opener against Miami.
It might have been better to sit out that sophomore season and mend, but Bennett endured as best he could. His numbers, though, were off from his freshman year and he finished last season with just 11 tackles — six unassisted — and one sack.
“If you asked me during last season I’d have said it probably was a lost year — that I should have red-shirted — but when I look back now, I see it as a good year for building myself up mentally,” he said. “I’m not going to use it as an excuse and say I was hurt the whole year, but obviously you don’t just ‘recover’ from a groin injury very quickly.
“That’s why I’d get in the hot tub we have in the dressing room. I was just trying to loosen it up. And afterward, if I was able to suck it up and play, I just said, ‘Thank God.’ And through it all, I realized I’m not bigger than the team. Instead of looking out just for myself, I tried to do whatever I could for the good of the team.”
That was especially evident in the final game of the season against Michigan when injuries prevented senior defensive end John Simon, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, from playing. Bennett started and the Bucks won 26-21 to cap off their perfect 12-0 season.
This year Bennett has been asked to embrace that same team-first philosophy and switch from defensive end to an inside tackle, where he often will be double-teamed and take more of a physical pounding.
“When I first found out they wanted me to play inside I kind of dreaded it,” he said. “At 285 pounds, I’m going to have to be technically perfect every game (against bigger offensive lineman) or I’m going to be in for a bad afternoon. But I take pride in being that grinder inside and helping the team however I can.”
With the Buckeyes having lost all four starting defensive linemen from last season — and Bennett being the most experienced returnee — Coach Urban Meyer is asking the charismatic defender for a lot more than just a position switch.
At the recent Big Ten Media Day in Chicago three weeks ago, the OSU coach said Bennett is one of five players on his team who needs to be a difference-maker — one of five who must make a huge impact — this season.
“I wouldn’t say we sat down and talked about that, but I know what he expects — he wants me to be a leader,” Bennett said. “Leadership, though, is something that’s earned and you can’t become a leader if you’re sitting on the sidelines with an injury. You need to be out there making some big plays. You’ve got to show the guys they can trust you, that you are gonna work for them, that you love them.”
After a solid freshman campaign as a backup, Bennett was out of sync last season for a couple of reasons. Besides the injury, he admitted it took him a while “to buy into” the new, intense ways of the Buckeyes’ new head coach.
“I’m naturally a skeptical person and at first I was not good handling change,” Bennett said. “Coach Meyer knew what he had to do and a lot of guys didn’t respond the way they needed to respond in the beginning. But he forced it on us. He had to.
“He needed to see who his players were and he had a short amount of time to do it, so he put us through the gauntlet — put us through the blast furnace — and when he found out who responded in hard times, those guys played.
“And we saw what we could accomplish if we just followed his plan because the plan is infallible. (Meyer) proved it to us.”
Although Bennett said he soon embraced the changes and “was the better for it,” he still was hampered by the season-long groin injury.
“Because of that I think I still have something to prove to Coach Meyer,” he admitted.
Meyer believes Bennett can be that leader the team needs up front because he is especially skilled, has smarts — a former premed student and now finance major, he has been designated an OSU Scholar Athlete with a 3.0 grade point average — and he has a solid foundation instilled by his parents, both of whom are West Point grads.
“They did a great job raising me,” Bennett said. “They gave me a lot of values and taught me respect and a sense of family. I think some of that is key to being a leader. “
If Bennett can be the rudder Meyer thinks he can be, the defensive line — regardless of the turnover from last year — could be one of the team’s strong suits this season.
Bennett — who said he still gets treatments three or four times a day to make sure the groin problem doesn’t resurface — will man the inside along with Joel Hale or Tommy Schutt, while Adolphus Washington and Noah Spence, a pair of potential highlight reel disruptors, will be on the ends.
Mike Vrabel, the OSU legend and 14-year NFL vet who is the vocal coach of the unit, said the Bucks have added enough young talent up front this season that as many as eight players may be in the rotation.
“I expect a lot out of this season,” Bennett said. “I expect us to be the top defensive line in the country.”
That’s a pretty heady assessment, but you get the sense OSU — with most of its offense back, including Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback Braxton Miller of Wayne High School — is about to embark on a special season this year. They are again bowl eligible and are rated No. 2 in the nation behind Alabama in nearly every preseason poll.
“Everyone is more excited this year. We see that light at the end of the season,” Bennett said. “If we do everything right, it won’t be just a 12-0 season. Our football won’t end in November like it did last year. Big things could happen. And right now that has us all feeling pretty good.”
And that’s something he rarely felt last season … even submerged in a hot tub and swallowing ibuprofen.