COLUMBUS — If there’s a limit to how many superstars Ohio State can replace on the defensive line, it hasn’t reached it yet.
Year after year, the Buckeyes are losing record-setting pass-rushers and early-round NFL Draft picks. And every offseason, the guys on the way out point to the oncoming wave and suggest the bar can still be raised by those coming behind them.
The stunner is that it keeps winding up being true, whether it was a Bosa brother or a Sam Hubbard or Tyquan Lewis heading to the next level, Ohio State kept on rolling out perhaps the best defensive line in America even with attrition that might wipe out most programs. Now comes arguably the biggest test so far with Chase Young moving on, but that hasn’t diminished the expectations for the Rushmen whatsoever heading into training camp this year.
“You have to keep growing,” vaunted Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said in the spring. “You have to keep moving forward. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens. … It’s not about just one guy. You know how I feel about that: It has to be two or three guys having great seasons.
“That’s always been the case here.”
The tradition of dominance is undeniable at Ohio State on the defensive line. And given the way it has continued to recruit up front, there’s more than enough talent to keep that legacy alive.
Who is going to protect that reputation? Who might enhance it? What’s next in a post-Young world for the Buckeyes? Lettermen Row is kicking off Defensive Line Week as always with Five Questions.
Who will lead Ohio State in sacks?
There is no understating it: Chase Young was the best defensive player in the country last season, and his sack production probably can’t be replaced by just one guy.
The Buckeyes, though, have multiple options capable of picking up the slack. And even if Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Jonathon Cooper are unlikely to match Young’s individual total, that group collectively should be able to ensure there is no drop-off for the unit overall. There’s a solid case to be made for each of those defensive ends winding up leading the team in sacks this season, and all of them know what it takes to deliver at a championship level.
Cooper is a respected veteran who is supremely motivated after a nagging injury forced him to redshirt last year. Smith has also battled injuries, but he’s had first-round NFL Draft buzz thanks to his incredible physical tools dating back to his arrival on campus. And Harrison showed as a true freshman that he fits in that category as a rare athletic specimen who Johnson has proven he can mold into superstardom. That trio could have a heated battle to lead the way statistically, and it will be fun to watch for everybody but opposing quarterbacks.
How can Buckeyes fill void at defensive tackle?
For all the understandable attention on Young, what truly set the Buckeyes apart from the pack last season was the remarkable, impactful work on the interior of the defensive line. Without DaVon Hamilton emerging into a disruptive force, Jashon Cornell finally unleashing his potential at three-technique and Robert Landers providing his energy on the inside, Ohio State simply wouldn’t have been the same.
But now all three of those veterans are gone. And replacing those guys figures to be even more pressing for the Buckeyes than filling the void left by Young. Just for starters: Ohio State needs Tommy Togiai to take the next step, needs a healthy Taron Vincent and could also use Haskell Garrett to finish his career on a high note. The ability and physical tools are there for those guys and a handful of younger options, but it will be imperative for them to be ready to match the level of those standouts from a year ago.
Does Ohio State need to move another end?
Larry Johnson has always preferred to rotate defensive ends to keep them fresh, at a minimum rolling through four guys and sometimes expanding it to six depending on what he has to work with that season. There’s enough talent to use a half-dozen Rushmen on the edge, but there’s a decent chance that Ohio State might want to borrow from that depth to help find a versatile threat to bolster the three-technique spot.
That role has long been one of the favorites for Johnson thanks to the matchups it can create for the Buckeyes by getting a quick-twitch weapon lined up against a guard in a one-on-one battle, and Cornell was the most recent example of a natural end finding a home on the inside. Could somebody like Tyler Friday make that same move and have the same success? The Buckeyes may want to consider a switch like that in training camp since the interior is facing more uncertainty than defensive end right now.
Will Zach Harrison make sophomore leap?
There’s something about that second season working with Larry Johnson that produces a huge leap forward for his prized pupils, and the Bosas and Young have all attested to how different they felt as sophomores.
The technique becomes more natural. The film study gets more nuanced. The comfort in the system improves. And all of it helps turn raw potential into refined production, setting the stage for the eventual rise into a first-round draft pick.
Zach Harrison might have actually been ahead of schedule as a freshman compared to his decorated predecessors, which makes it a little bit dizzying to project what he might become this year and next before declaring for the NFL. The pandemic shutdown did take away some valuable hands-on reps with Johnson, and the weight training obviously wasn’t the same after missing a couple months with Mickey Marotti. So, Harrison’s sophomore offseason wasn’t the same as those other guys, but it will still be fascinating to watch what he can do in Year Two.
How much longer does Ohio State have with Larry Johnson?
The question is never truly going away, no matter how much Larry Johnson hates it — while also fighting it off by getting himself in great shape and continuing to show he’s on top of his craft.
When will the legendary assistant retire from the profession and leave a huge hole to fill on the Buckeyes staff? At this point, he’s already flown past the date that negative recruiters have whispered about for years to try to undercut his efforts on the trail and isn’t even remotely slowing down. It’s not hard to envision Johnson staying in charge for several more years at the rate he’s on, though he’s not going to tip his hand one way or another at this point. No matter what happens, Johnson has earned the right to stay as long as he wants at Ohio State, and it’s hard to find any signs that he’s ready to call it quits.