Fact: Larry Johnson and Ohio State will have one of the deepest and most talented defensive lines in college football this fall.
Fact: The essential reason the first fact is true is due to an astounding amount of elite talent at defensive end. And Dre'Mont Jones.
“Dre’Mont Jones is really turning into a fine player here for us,” Urban Meyer said this spring about the redshirt sophomore. “We have five premier [defensive linemen] in my mind with four defensive ends and Dre’Mont Jones that I’d like to see all five on the field at one time.”
While the latter half of that quote stirred up a multitude of ideas in the heads of fans and reporters, Larry Johnson did his best to squash the thought of the Buckeyes unleashing five of his horses in one package on Ohio State's defensive line. Another quote from Meyer leaves the head coach's thoughts about the consistencies of the rest of his defensive tackles in question, however.
“The other side, we're hoping that Tracy Sprinkle can give us some depth and be the guy we thought he was going to be before he got hurt,” he said.
Sprinkle left Ohio State's 77-10 season-opening victory over Bowling Green last September with a patella injury that cost him the rest of the year. That opened the door for Jones to burst into the spotlight, which he did using his quick twitch and fine technique to wreak havoc on opposing backfields. Jones finished his first year of playing for the Buckeyes with 52 total tackles, a mark that ranked sixth on the team and highest among all Ohio State defensive linemen.
The next-highest tally among defensive tackles for the 2016 season came from Mike Hill, who recorded 21 stops. Robert Landers, another redshirt freshman, brilliantly used his diminutive stature to get underneath blockers and shoot into the backfield at a similar rate as Jones and finished with 7.5 tackles for loss — good for fifth on the team.
Hill and Jones are in line to start at tackle for the Buckeyes in 2017, provided the former holds off a push from Sprinkle. Johnson said he "wants to play eight or 10" guys up front, a notion that shows how spoiled Ohio State is on its defensive line with the talent at end.
Not every situation calls for running out defensive ends like Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes and Nick Bosa, however. There is a reason that group is known as the 'Rushmen' package, where the four defensive ends and four best pass rushers on the roster pin their ears back and try to throw the quarterback in the dirt. Ohio State will use its best four players up front, so we could see more snaps for the Rushmen other than just in passing situations but the Buckeyes don't necessarily want to do that.
That is why it is essential for the defensive tackles who haven't heard their names called much on Saturday afternoons yet in their Ohio State careers to experience a Jones-like leap ahead of the 2017 season.
Johnson's misses at bringing in the big-time, space-eating defensive tackles on the recruiting trail speak for themselves. What he has to work with is a slew of third-year sophomores like Jones, two fifth-year players in Hill and Sprinkle and a trio of freshmen. Each can help Ohio State in his own way. We will focus on the less(er) established players for the purpose of this story.
In the brief periods Ohio State allowed the media to watch practice this spring, it really felt like Hamilton was the one defensive tackle Johnson barked at the most. Not in a negative way but instead in an encouraging, we know you have outstanding potential to help us, way.
The redshirt sophomore was a late add to Ohio State's 2015 class from nearby Pickerington and thought to be a developmental prospect with good size. He is now listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds and it is clear Johnson wants him to take that next step. Hamilton had 10 total tackles (2.5 for loss) in 2016. He also recorded half a sack in the season opener and hopped on Wilton Speight's fumble near the goalline against Michigan.
A big body inside Ohio State could certainly use in certain packages against the run, Hamilton was the lowest rated defensive linemen among his recruiting class. It is players like him who Johnson desperately needs to take that proverbial step forward to establish better depth.
One of last season's biggest surprises, Landers proved he deserved a place in the rotation with his motor and uncanny ability to get under the pad level of his opponent due to his stout 6-foot-1 (if he's lucky) and 287-pound frame.
Johnson sort of mentioned Landers as an afterthought as a player among his group that performed well in spring practice. It was expected for someone like Landers and needed considering he brings a different element than the others at the position.
Landers isn't necessarily a flashy player but when he flashes, you remember it. His performance in the 13 games last year helped show Johnson he can help, even if he doesn't possess the body type needed to play a mountain of snaps along the defensive line in the Big Ten.
Like Jones and Sprinkle, Cornell moved to defensive tackle after committing to Ohio State as a defensive end. He enrolled in January 2015, a big-time get from Minnesota. Johnson said Cornell's third set of spring practices were his best as a Buckeye.
“I think that Jashon has come a long way, I think he has got a chance to help us,” Johnson said.
Cornell played in just five games last season, recording four tackles and 1.5 for loss in mop-up duty against Rutgers and Maryland. At 6-foot-3 and 280 pounds, Cornell's size is similar to that of Jones. The former 4-star prospect is someone that Ohio State envisioned as more than a rotational player when he signed. He hasn't shown it yet and with Hill, Sprinkle and Jones ahead of him, likely won't in 2017. But can he at least provide depth in the event of an injury?
The lone redshirt freshman defensive tackle in the program, Barrow sat out last season as he came off an ACL injury suffered in high school. At 6-foot-2 and 290 pounds, Johnson finally was able to get to work with him this spring after Barrow enrolled in January 2016.
“Malik Barrow has really just come into his stride to move forward,” Johnson said.
There might be too many players ahead of Barrow on the depth chart — and the fact he missed time in his development with an injury — for him to make much noise on the defensive line in 2017. But never say never.
Jerron Cage and Haskell Garrett
The two defensive tackles in Ohio State's 2017 recruiting class are set to enroll in June. Both are 4-star prospects and likely headed for redshirts barring any unforeseen injury ahead of them on the depth chart.
However, with so many players slated to leave the defensive line for the next level either due to graduation or as a top NFL prospect, both Garrett and Cage need to take proper steps with Johnson as freshmen.
Other than Tracy Sprinkle, the Buckeyes were pretty lucky on the injury front with their defensive linemen. Malik Barrow took a redshirt as he rehabbed but that was, for the most part, expected.
At some point in 2017, Larry Johnson might have to adjust his rotation like he did last fall. He hit the lottery with Dre'Mont Jones. If he needed to dip into the young pool of players again, would he be so fortunate this time around?