COLUMBUS — Chase Young is arguably the best pass-rusher in Ohio State history.
But replacing Young might be the easier of the open positions to fill on the defensive line. Legendary position coach Larry Johnson has proven time and time again that he can find another elite pass-rusher on the outside. He replaced Joey Bosa. And Jalyn Holmes. And Tyquan Lewis. And Sam Hubbard. And Nick Bosa. There are superstars in the pipeline coming up to be the next Chase Young.
But the Buckeyes didn’t just lose Young. They have to find replacements for three highly-productive interior defensive linemen in DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers. The success of the defensive line this season will depend on how well the Buckeyes can create pressure from the inside.
It all starts inside-out.
“I think the inside guys are the biggest key,” Johnson said. “Looking at Haskell Garrett, Tommy Togiai, Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage, Antwuan Jackson — those are the guys on the inside who have to really step up.”
Togiai is a bona fide starter with huge expectations this year after contributing along the defensive line in a rotational role during the College Football Playoff run last season. He’s going to be one of the key pieces for the Buckeyes moving forward, and he has superstar potential from the inside. But beyond Togiai, Ohio State has a lot of potential and not many proven players.
Garrett is a former top-70 prospect. Cage has been fighting for playing time for multiple seasons but has never found a way to break through. The Buckeyes liked Antwuan Jackson so much they recruited him twice, once out of high school and once on the transfer market.
Then there’s Taron Vincent, a former No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the country who was slated to break out last year before a season-ending injury suffered before the opener. He spend the year learning from the three seniors on the inside of the defensive line and now can begin to have an impact similar to theirs.
“It’s been hard to watch all my brothers ball out,” he said last season. “But I’m proud of all of those guys, DaVon, Jashon, BB — they were getting what they deserve. I’m so glad for them.”
Hamilton, Landers and Cornell combined for 10.5 sacks last year and were disruptive in the middle, making life easier for the defensive ends. Before the suspension of spring football in March, Johnson started to see that potential coming through on the field for Vincent. He could be what the Buckeyes need to provide pressure inside.
“As we were getting going, you started to see some of the things you recruited [Vincent] for,” Johnson said. “So, it was just unfortunate that we ended things early. But we’re hopeful that we’ll get back together and get going again. I’m really looking forward to some big things for him going into the fall.”
Vincent could see himself in the most important role on the defensive line for the Buckeyes. With plenty of talent at defensive end — Zach Harrison, Jonathon Cooper and Tyreke Smith, among others — and Togiai on the inside nose tackle spot, Vincent may be the perfect fit at three-technique. It’s a position Johnson loves. And it will be huge for the Buckeyes pass rush if Vincent can live up to his five-star billing as a recruit.
Replacing Young on the outside will also be huge, but it’s unlikely that the Buckeyes will have another Heisman Trophy candidate at defensive end. They’ll be talented, but even a transcendent talent like Young benefitted from a good interior pass rush.
And the Buckeyes will need it again.
“As we were going through the three days of practice, I thought those guys [on the interior] were on the right track to be able to contribute in the fall,” Johnson said.
They’ll have to be ready. They’re a key to helping Ohio State replace Chase Young without a drop-off in production.
The pass rush works inside-out.