During spring practices, Jashon Cornell spent all his time at defensive tackle. While enduring grueling summer workouts, he was under the impression he was working toward playing on the interior. Throughout preseason camp, he only played 3-technique.
Those plans changed in a single meeting on Sept. 25, the Sunday before Ohio State’s season opener against Florida Atlantic.
With an injury holding Jonathon Cooper out of action and Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday seeming unlikely to play in the first game of the season due to their own injuries, defensive line coach Larry Johnson told Cornell he needed him back at defensive end, a position he hadn’t practiced since the week he spent preparing for the Rose Bowl. That could have posed a problem.
In multiple interviews since shifting inside from defensive end to defensive tackle after the 2018 season ended, Cornell expressed excitement about getting to play 3-technique, which he called his “natural position.” He believes he’s a better pass rusher from the inside than off the edge, where he managed just a single sack last year. Yet Johnson wanted him back at defensive end for the first game of the season.
Cornell took it in stride.
“I wasn't disappointed. It's next man up,” Cornell said on Wednesday. “You can't be selfish. We're a family around here. Once a guy goes down and you need help, I'm here for you. I didn't think about myself. I thought about the team. If the team needed me to play defensive end this week, I was going to play defensive end.”
He didn’t just play the position well; he played what both he and Johnson described as his best game as a Buckeye.
“I'd prefer (Jashon Cornell) back at the 3-technique position because as you know, my philosophy is our 3-technique has to be a great pass-rusher. Jashon brings a different level at that position.”– Larry Johnson
Cornell picked up his first sack of the season, which came when Chase Young forced the Owls’ quarterback out of the pocket and Cornell, playing contain, ran him down and caused a fumble. Naturally, he said that was the play he most enjoyed in the season opener. He finished the game with four tackles and two tackles for loss.
“I think he did some things that really showed his ability,” Johnson said on Wednesday. “You saw him run down a jet screen. That's tough to do. And then you saw his pass-rushing ability, knocking the ball out, a sack-fumble. So I think he's in a really good moment. But he's had a really great camp, so I'm not surprised. A fifth-year player finally gets it. He finally understands it. We're looking for great things from him.”
Dating back to the spring, Johnson has expressed optimism in Cornell. He just didn’t realize his first opportunities this season would once again come at defensive tackle.
Johnson chose to move Cornell to the edge because he didn’t want somebody starting across from Young who had never even taken a snap in a game. Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who redshirted in 2018 as a freshman, and first-year edge rusher Zach Harrison were the other options.
Though Cornell hadn’t played defensive end in months, the switch felt natural due to his extensive experience at the position. Much of the defense changed in style this offseason, but Johnson didn’t alter his defensive line strategy, allowing Cornell to make a smooth switch.
“I know the playbook, so I already knew what the defensive end was doing because I played next to Coop so I know what he's doing,” Cornell said. “So it gave me an advantage because with me knowing what the guy next to me is doing, it helped me transition so much easier.”
Despite having a standout game at the position on Saturday, Cornell’s stint back at defensive end has already ended.
On Wednesday, Cornell practiced at defensive tackle, the position he plans to play against Cincinnati this weekend.
“I'd prefer him back at the 3-technique position because as you know, my philosophy is our 3-technique has to be a great pass-rusher,” Johnson said. “Jashon brings a different level at that position. So we're going to move him back and continue to go forward.”
Cornell’s return to the interior signals that Smith, Friday or both of the defensive ends who were listed as game-time decisions before not taking a snap on Saturday will likely play in the second game of the season. Defensive tackle Taron Vincent, conversely, could remain out of action after missing the season opener.
With Vincent possibly still out and Davon Hamilton likely moving back to nose tackle, Cornell will have many chances to show off the interior pass-rushing ability that he has continued to hype.
“One thing I'm really good at is my get-off, and I think my get-off can scare offensive linemen,” Cornell said.
If all goes as planned, Cornell could have a similar impact in the second week of the season as he did in the first game of the year, just from a different position.