No one ever wants to admit anyone else is stronger than them.
Not kids arm-wrestling against each other. Not someone who, even though they can’t open the dang jar from the back of the kitchen pantry that feels sealed shut, doesn’t want to hand it to someone else and risk having that person twist the top off with minimal effort. And definitely not college football players.
But even Tommy Togiai’s Ohio State teammates know it’s foolish to claim they’re stronger than the 6-foot-2, 300-pound sophomore defensive tackle from Pocatello, Idaho.
“Tommy, that's the strongest man on the team,” Chase Young said this spring. “You can ask anybody.”
Really? It’s that clear?
“Strongest guy,” Young said. “That Polynesian strength? It's crazy. Crazy.”
Young isn’t the only Buckeyes defensive lineman to hold that belief. Jashon Cornell confirmed it, treating it as if it’s a certifiable fact.
“I think, out of everybody on the football team, Tommy's by far the strongest person,” Cornell said. “Then Davon (Hamilton), and probably me or Taron (Vincent).”
Togiai, who enrolled early in the spring of 2018, has spent just a year and a half at Ohio State, yet he already has claimed the superlative. No one – not Antwuan Jackson, Haskell Garrett, Josh Myers, Joshua Alabi, Wyatt Davis, Hamilton, Cornell or anyone else – is stronger than him.
That’s certainly an enviable title to have, especially just one year into his career. Unsurprisingly, the list of areas of his game he’s working to improve have nothing to do with how much he can squat or bench press and everything to do with his days spent in Larry Johnson’s School of Defensive Linemen.
“Everything that I need to improve on, like my get-off, my pass-rush skills, working on hands more,” Togiai said midway through spring practice. “I think those are the biggest things for me that I'm working on this spring.”
As a freshman in 2018, Togiai sat behind Robert Landers and Davon Hamilton, both of whom were fourth-year juniors, on the nose tackle depth chart. Antwuan Jackson Jr., the top-rated junior-college prospect in 2018, was in the mix, too. Still, Togiai played 114 snaps, the fifth-most among all defensive tackles and most among first-year players at his position. He accumulated 10 tackles, including two tackles for loss.
“Having BB (Landers) and Davon ahead of me, coaching me, it’s just like extra coaches. So I use that to benefit me in ways. Even after coach J’s done, I’ll go to them, ask them if they have any tips for me after.”– Tommy Togiai
Despite showing promise in his first year in Columbus, Togiai’s role doesn’t appear destined to change much this fall.
Both Landers and Hamilton returned for their fifth seasons as Buckeyes, and if all goes as planned, Landers won’t have to deal with the nagging injuries that hindered him last season. Landers will likely start and Hamilton will back him up, relegating Togiai to third-string nose tackle. Once again, Jackson also will fight for snaps.
Johnson’s propensity to rotate his linemen will ensure Togiai’s opportunities to make plays continue, though. Referencing the depth at the position, Johnson said he has a plan to play everyone currently in the mix at nose tackle this fall.
“I can interchange anybody and I'll get the same kind of work from each guy,” Johnson said this spring.
Togiai still must wait for his turn to start on the defensive front, and that won’t come until Landers and Hamilton run out of eligibility following the 2019 season.
So in the meantime, he’s doing his best to glean whatever knowledge he can from the veterans ahead of him on the depth chart.
“Having BB (Landers) and Davon ahead of me, coaching me, it's just like extra coaches,” Togiai said. “So I use that to benefit me in ways. Even after coach J's done, I'll go to them, ask them if they have any tips for me after.”
Once Landers and Hamilton leave, whether they end up in the NFL or not, it’ll be time for Togiai to compete for the starting nose tackle job. And unless Jackson shows he has taken a tremendous leap this fall, Togiai will enter next spring as the heavy favorite to win the spot.
Togiai has always been on the fast track to start, ever since entering the program last spring.
He was the No. 55 overall prospect and third-ranked defensive tackle in the country. Given his strength and leverage, he was physically ready to play at the collegiate level. He earned more playing time than most freshman nose tackles, playing triple-digit snaps, and he carried that momentum into 2019. With Landers out for spring due to injury, he spent the 15 practices working with the first-team and second-team defenses, which he mentioned as something that helped him improve as he enters his sophomore season.
“I think learning from the older guys and running with the ones and the twos, I think I've learned a lot,” Togiai said. “I've matured a lot from my freshman year. And then learning that and using it to my advantage.”
Eventually, Togiai will start. That feels like a given.
But for one more season, he’ll be an overqualified third-string nose tackle pushing the fifth-year seniors for playing time, and that’s certainly not a bad asset for Johnson and the Buckeyes.