COLUMBUS — It never seems to matter how many playmakers Ohio State loses on the defensive line.
The Buckeyes front never rebuilds. It always reloads.
And after losing a Heisman Trophy finalist at defensive end, the Buckeyes are doing just that. And while they might not have a Chase Young to cause havoc in opposing backfields, the defensive end unit might even be deeper than it was last season.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson lost one dominant defensive end and now has a talented five-man rotation to work with this year.
“You’ve got five guys, and they all could be starting anywhere in the country,” Johnson said. “I’m going to treat them that way. They’re all five starters for me right now. So, we’re going to a good job of making sure each guy gets to start as we go through the season. … Some guys are going to emerge and push themselves ahead. If that happens, we’ll make a change. But right now, they all have an opportunity to be a starter.”
It doesn’t seem to matter which two defensive ends are on the field at once. The Buckeyes see no drop-off in skill or production. Of course, Zach Harrison and fifth-year senior captain Jonathon Cooper are former five-star players with tremendous upside. And Tyreke Smith was a top-40 player trying to finally break through as a junior. But Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday are also certainly talented enough to see the field and make an impact, too.
“It’s great,” Tyreke Smith said. “Everybody can learn from everybody. Everybody’s different. Everybody rushes different. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses. We’re all like brothers in the D-line unit. The five D-ends, we’re really tight. We can take constructive criticism and when we mess up on something, we’re good enough and we’re tight enough where we can tell each other: ‘Hey, man, you gotta do this better.’ Without taking it personal, that goes a long way.”
Four of the five defensive ends, their position coach and two defensive tackles met with the media to discuss their progress as they barrel toward the Oct. 24 kickoff against Nebraska. Lettermen Row is breaking down What We Learned from Larry Johnson and the Rushmen.
Zach Harrison shrugs off lofty expectations
Zach Harrison understands what is expected of him as he enters Year Two at Ohio State. He’s already expected to be like the two Bosas and Chase Young.
The Columbus-area native and former top-five, five-star prospect doesn’t hide from those expectations. But he also doesn’t let them bother him.
“Those guys who came before me, they’re a bunch of great players,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of expectations for me to do so-and-so numbers, so I don’t really try to think about that. Every day in practice, I just try to go out there, work on my technique. And also it’s not just one person coming up next year. It’s a whole unit of guys who have got something to prove, so we’re all going to come out in the first game and show what we’ve been working on.”
The growth Harrison has shown since he enrolled at Ohio State early last year are setting him up for a huge sophomore season. The key is to just keep working.
“He’s got to block the noise from the outside that he’s going to be the next guy,” Johnson said. “And really continue to concentrate on his development. That’s what I’ve been talking to him about: ‘Just be the best player you can be, Zach.’ Don’t worry about the standard that’s been set before you. It’s great, but you’ve got to be your own player.”
Buckeyes not bothered by youth, inexperience inside
Ohio State has no lack of talent at defensive tackle. But after losing Jashon Cornell, Robert Landers and DaVon Hamilton from the interior a season ago, the Buckeyes have a lack of experience.
Antwuan Jackson has played sparingly through his career. Taron Vincent hasn’t had a chance to live up to his five-star billing thanks to injuries. Haskell Garrett hasn’t been officially cleared to play. Jerron Cage hasn’t played meaningful snaps. Players such as Jaden McKenzie and Ty Hamilton have yet to take the field. Tommy Togiai is the only true proven commodity.
Ohio State is confident it can hash things out at defensive tackle.
“We’ll have three guys that can play inside, nose tackle, and then we’ll have three guys that can play three-technique,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some young guys who have done a great job, are coming along. So I think we’ll be OK the season with six guys on the inside that have an opportunity to play.”
The youth movement on the interior has led to good competition. And it’s produced some surprises, such as Ty Hamilton. The three-star prospect is entering his first season with the Buckeyes, and he’s already gained 25 pounds to bulk up for an inside role. He can play either spot inside. Hamilton has a chance to be a leading contributor from the most recent recruiting class.
Tommy Togiai comfortable in starring role
The Buckeyes do bring back one key interior defensive lineman, and he might be the most important.
Tommy Togiai, who is entering his third season for the Buckeyes, played significant minutes behind Hamilton and Landers last season, allowing him to learn from both senior leaders and grow into a better run-stuffer and pass-rusher from the nose tackle.
“It was a really big help, him and BB [Landers], just giving me tips, showing me how it’s done, really,” Togiai said. “Just giving me the pointers on how to rush from the one-technique and the three-technique, as well. And Coach J, as well, just showing me how to use my hands and use moves on the guard and center.”
Ohio State isn’t looking for a dominant pass-rushing nose tackle. That’s not the nature of the position for Larry Johnson. But the Buckeyes will certainly take a good pass-rushing guy on the interior when they can get one. Togiai could be what Hamilton was last year.
“[Hamilton] got seven to eight sacks from the nose guard position, that’s tough to do when you get double-teamed,” Johnson said. “Tommy has the same kind, he’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s athletic. He’ll have a chance to rush the passer going forward. Limited plays, he doesn’t really get a chance. Now playing 40, 45 plays a game, he’ll have some opportunity to rush the passer. I’ve very confident he has the ability to do that.”
Versatility leads to creativity at three-technique
Larry Johnson always has a plan for the Buckeyes defensive line. He’s earned the benefit of the doubt throughout his career, and he always has an effective defensive line, no matter the previous losses.
So when it comes to one of his favorite spots on his defensive line, he has a plan. It involves creativity and versatility.
“We’ve got a plan,” he said. “We always want to have our best pass rushers on the field on third-down situations, so we’re always going to transition to that. We’re working guys that I feel have a chance to do something at 3-technique if we need to make a change rushing the passer. That’s part of our plan going forward. We just don’t know who’s going to emerge as that guy right now.”
So maybe Tyler Friday wasn’t supposed to answer the question honestly an hour later. After Larry Johnson had declined to confirm Friday who was going to be sliding inside to man the all-important three-technique role for the Buckeyes, Friday may have showed their hand.
“I think I could definitely do both,” Friday said. “You guys will see some stuff coming up later on this season that we got planned for moving me inside and out.”
If Friday is playing in that role, the Buckeyes pass rush will likely be better because of it.