When Larry Johnson said this spring he doesn’t think it's possible for Ohio State to have too many defensive tackles who deserve to play, he meant it.
On Thursday, after a week of practices during fall camp, Johnson set the number at six. Six defensive tackles who will play steady minutes.
“We're trying to take advantage of what we have,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of depth on the inside. Trying to find a way to get six or seven guys ready to play. I like where we're at. We still have some room to improve.”
He has redshirt senior Davon Hamilton, redshirt senior Robert Landers and sophomore Tommy Togiai at nose tackle, along with redshirt senior Jashon Cornell, sophomore Taron Vincent and junior Haskell Garrett at 3-technique. Antwuan Jackson and Jerron Cage could push for playing time, too.
With Dre’Mont Jones gone to the NFL, where the Denver Broncos drafted him in the third round, the Buckeyes no longer have a stud at defensive tackle. Opponents had to game plan specifically to stop Jones or he’d terrorize them in their backfields. His 13 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks were more than the rest of the team’s defensive tackles had combined in either statistic. Landers and Vincent were the only other defensive tackles who recorded sacks, and they each had only one.
Nobody on the team currently has Jones’ reputation, and none of them have fully developed his skillset. Some of the younger linemen, such as Vincent and Togiai, have a chance to reach that level, but they’re not there yet.
“I love the way those (six) guys play together, hang together. And they get it. They understand they are the heartbeat that's going to make us go this year.”– Larry Johnson on the defensive tackles
So instead of heavy reliance on a single player at either 3-technique and nose tackle, Johnson aims to win with a barrage of rested players.
“You've got one guy plays 20 plays full speed, next guy goes 15 playing full speed, another guy plays 15,” Johnson said. “That's a lot of heat going on the field – and fresh guys.”
Playing full-speed means something different to this group than it typically would for defensive tackles.
All six of them, according to Johnson, now run 40-yard-dash times of 5.0 seconds or better. Specifically, Hamilton cut his 40 time from 5.4 to 5.0 seconds this offseason as a result of his focus on improved conditioning.
“We're really quick,” Johnson said. “We can run to the football. And I think that's the thing that separates this group. That's a group that can run really well, and that's a thing that really excites me.”
The unit’s hope is to wear down offensive linemen as games progress, leading to more interior penetration, quarterback pressures and sacks from six rotating linemen.
“Our inside guys have to be really good pass-rushers, and that's been our focus from the day we started at the end of the season to get ready for that,” Johnson said. “So now they double Chase (Young) and turn Jashon or BB loose. We've got one-on-one on the inside. I'll take that all day. And they can't do it all day.”
In order to rotate players while also attempting to allow them to find a rhythm on the field, Johnson said he will try to ensure nobody plays fewer than two series in a row, but they typically won’t play more than three series in a row, either. If they need a breather, players can tap on their helmet and Johnson will sub them out.
The defensive tackles, based on their comments on Thursday, have bought into Johnson’s rotation.
- Landers on the nose tackles: “It's a show, just because since all three of us have different playing styles, you really don’t know what you're going to get. All three of us bring a different type of tempo, you could say a different type of swag to the game, especially up front. When I'm in, I try to do the best that I can to put on a show. And then when I'm out, I just sit back and cross my arms and watch, see what's going to happen.”
- Cornell on the 3-techniques: “The 3-techniques, we're here to wear the offensive guard out because when the next guy is in, the next guy that's coming in should be better than the guy before him. That's how we think as a 3-technique. The guy behind me should be better than me. The guy behind him should be better than him when they step on the field. I feel like if we keep doing that and reload and reload, we're going to wear the offensive guards down, especially with our pass-rush ability at 3-technique.”
The nose tackles, featuring two redshirt seniors – Hamilton and Landers – and Togiai, offer a trio of different playing styles.
Hamilton, who has lined up with the starters during practices open to the media in fall camp, is the biggest at 6-foot-4 and 310 pounds, allowing him to utilize pure force and strength. Landers, at 6-foot-1, 285 pounds, uses his leverage and a fast first step to penetrate. Togiai added flexibility in the offseason to complement his brute strength.
“I feel like I give a lot of power in my playing style,” Hamilton said. “And then BB's more of a quick guy. And Tommy's kind of both, so it's just like you don't know what to do at that point.”
At 3-technique, the Buckeyes have a similar variety of options.
Cornell, a former defensive end, believes he’ll provide some of the pass-rush ability lost when Jones left for the NFL. Garrett offers more of a stout run-stopping option. Vincent, like Togiai, is a bit of a hybrid between the upperclassmen.
“You're very lucky to get what we have right now, to be honest with you,” Johnson said. “Those (six) guys can play anywhere in the country. No question about it. I think we're very fortunate they're all here and really love each other. They understand they're all going to play. There's not a selfish guy in the room, and that's the thing that makes it really special. You've got guys unselfish, willing to do anything for each teammate so we all can have success. I think that's the message.
“And I love the way those (six) guys play together, hang together. And they get it. They understand they are the heartbeat that's going to make us go this year.”