Zach Harrison-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison is looking to take another step forward. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Spring Forecast: Developing Rushmen critical to fueling Buckeyes defense

COLUMBUS — Make no mistake: Ohio State wants more sacks.

But it’s the pressure that matters most to the Buckeyes. And that actually wasn’t much of a problem for the Rushmen unit a year ago when it was fully healthy in a makeshift season.

Vaunted position coach Larry Johnson offered yet another reminder of his ability to maximize the potential of his defensive linemen last year, culminating in a relentless barrage of Clemson star Trevor Lawrence in the Sugar Bowl blowout before COVID again wiped away depth in the title game loss.

Ohio State got the best season of Jonathon Cooper’s career and has Tyreke Smith pointed for stardom. Tommy Togiai elevated his game to a level where it wasn’t a surprise to see him declare early for the NFL Draft, and Haskell Garrett authored one of the most remarkable rises in the country alongside him at defensive tackle. Throw in at least four other encouraging flashes from the Buckeyes up front and it’s clear once more that few assistants anywhere have the same kind of impact as Johnson.

But, yes, a few more sacks would be nice even through only two teams in the Big Ten finished with more than Ohio State a year ago.

“We want to get there, we want to get the sacks,” Cooper said last season. “After a game, the stats didn’t really show what we were doing all game. But during the game, you have to keep going. You have to keep getting there. That’s what I tell my guys: Keep going. I told them on the sideline: ‘He’s going to break. He’s going to hold onto the ball one of these times.’ So just keep rushing, keep rushing. And I feel like we just have to keep doing that no matter what goes on throughout the game.

“I feel like people aren’t really seeing the type of defensive line that we have and the players that we have are rushing extremely well because of the stats and sacks and stuff like that. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys.”

Cooper will now be watching those Buckeyes from afar as he heads off to the NFL. And replacing him and Togiai will be near the top of the priority list for the program when it opens camp late next week. As the Spring Forecast series rolls along at Lettermen Row, next up for Ohio State will be Johnson’s Rushmen.

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Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett is returning for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

The Stakes: Buckeyes expect dominance, greatness up front

The Buckeyes were making it look pretty easy to simply reload with a new first-round NFL Draft pick to anchor the pass rush every year, but eventually there’s going to be a hiccup. The loss of a generational talent like Chase Young ultimately didn’t keep Ohio State from being effective up front, but obviously it didn’t have anybody playing at the kind of Bosa Brother- or Predator-level production or demanding constant double-team attention.

Perhaps it’s a tad unfair to expect that on a year-in, year-out basis, but that’s become the standard for the Buckeyes. With two more NFL Draft picks out the door as Jonathon Cooper and Tommy Togiai move to the next level, the pressure on the returning Buckeyes to step up and meet the challenge only goes up. Larry Johnson isn’t going to lower his expectations, and Ohio State needs elite performances on the defensive line to help win a national title.

The Candidates: Ohio State loaded with first-round Draft potential

The Rushmen aren’t likely to have another appearance in the first round of the NFL Draft this spring, but they have the potential to more than make up for it next year. Both Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison have long been tabbed as future stars with next-level pass-rushing ability, and another year of development could skyrocket both to stardom as they look to form one of the best tandems in the country. Guys like Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste shouldn’t be overlooked either as the Buckeyes continue to use a deep rotation, and a new five-star talent in Jack Sawyer is already on campus looking to push for snaps.

So, the edge should be in fine shape again for the Buckeyes. But there will be a bit more intrigue on the interior even with Haskell Garrett returning to build on his All-America campaign. If Taron Vincent can get a healthy offseason for once to ramp up his development, that would be a huge lift for Ohio State considering his five-star credentials when he arrived on campus. Jerron Cage and Antwuan Jackson have steadily progressed during their careers at Ohio State, and Jaden McKenzie and Jacolbe Cowan are intriguing prospects as well. But there is certainly important work to be done during March and April for Larry Johnson’s group.

The Forecast: Rushmen will develop depth across line

Betting on Larry Johnson to figure out how to put the pieces together is always the safest option, particularly when he’s got a handful of veterans as the foundation while he brings along the talented young options behind them. The Buckeyes will rotate at all four spots, they’ll generate pressure on the quarterback and they will swallow up the run — that seems all but certain.

It’s less clear exactly who will fall where in the pecking order outside of Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith at end and Garrett anchoring the unit inside. But Ohio State has plenty of depth and some positional flexibility in reserve, and Johnson will surely emerge from camp with a good idea of how he wants to use it.

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