Larry Johnson, Ohio State’s defensive line coach who Ryan Day once called “legendary,” has a go-to phrase. Something he says all the time. Something he definitely wishes he didn’t have to use on Saturday.
“It's just a next-man-up mentality,” Zach Harrison said after Ohio State’s 73-14 slaughter of Maryland. “That's what coach J preaches.”
Tyreke Smith, too, recalled a variation of his position coach’s words.
“I feel like when one goes down, coach J always says one comes up,” Smith said.
Next man up, in this case, meant Johnson turned Smith and Harrison off the edge as the starting defensive ends, and they produced as anybody would hope for from a pair of players once ranked as top-35 overall recruits. Smith had two sacks, and Harrison added one sack in his first career start, giving the duo three of the Buckeyes’ season-high seven sacks on Saturday.
The next men went up, and they did what they needed to do.
The conversation in the next two weeks won’t be centered on them, though. Everybody knew that before the game, during the game and after the game. Smith and Harrison could have combined for 12 sacks and they wouldn’t be the main topic of discussion in the next few days.
Instead, everybody’s focused on one of their veteran teammates. Chase Young. The man nowhere to be found at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
The day before the ninth game of the season, Ohio State announced the shocking news that Young would be suspended for the game against the Terrapins and that the athletic department is looking into a “possible NCAA issue from 2018.” At the time, it was uncertain how many games Young would miss, and that’s still not known. Ohio State football spokesman Jerry Emig publicly refuted a report from ESPN that the team is preparing for him to miss four games, saying it doesn’t “have any expectations right now regarding numbers of games that will be missed.”
However long Young remains out, it’ll loom. How could it not? Just days ago, Young was viewed as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate despite playing defensive end, beginning the final stretch of the regular season with a remarkable 13.5 sacks. He had at least a half-sack in all eight victories, and his teammates constantly harped on how the attention offenses paid on him would make games easier for them by just stepping on the field.
Suddenly, the Buckeyes don’t have that presence. They’ve lost the best player in college football for an uncertain amount of time.
When asked whether it felt like something was missing on the field against Maryland, Smith said no. That’s what he had to say. Johnson has to convince all of the linemen that they’ll be able to step up and replace the irreplaceable.
“We stick together, even when one goes down,” Smith said. “Someone has to fill in for that void missing.”
That void won’t truly get filled. But the Buckeyes showcased their willingness to try everything to make up for lost production, showcasing creativity in the process.
Without Young, an ace third-down pass rusher, the coaches put together a few packages with players lined up in uncommon spots. Defensive ends as rush linebackers off the edge. Defensive ends at defensive tackle. A tight end – Rashod Berry – at defensive end. Linebackers at the line of scrimmage in a A-gap. Linebackers blitzing off the edge.
Some Intriguing third-down packages by Ohio State's defense.— Colin Hass-Hill (@chasshill) November 9, 2019
The most recent had Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste as rush linebackers, Haskell Garrett at defensive tackle and Tuf Borland and Malik Harrison on a twist rushing up the middle. Borland got home for the sack. pic.twitter.com/1Xl7som6yp
When the coaches went with typical looks, they offered an idea of how their future could look.
Next year, Ohio State won’t have Cooper, a senior. It will no longer be able to depend on Young, widely regarded as the top-rated prospect in the 2020 NFL draft.
Instead, Johnson will turn to the next wave of defensive ends, including Harrison and Smith. He’ll use current redshirt freshman Javontae Jean-Baptiste and sophomore Tyler Friday, both of whom played significant snaps on Saturday. He could go with current redshirt freshman Alex Williams and freshman Noah Potter. That group of underclassmen has Johnson excited; he just didn’t think he’d rely on them Saturday or any other point this season.
“Everybody, I think, just went to another level, in terms of their game just went to an elite level,” Smith said. “Tried to go out there and do as best as they could, show that they're capable of playing at a high level. As you've seen, we had guys that you really don't see usually in there in there doing good, doing well.
“That's just a glimpse of what we've got going on, but we can show that every game. I think this was an opening game for us.”
Those words especially pertain to Harrison’s situation.
As the crown jewel of Ohio State’s recruiting haul last year, Harrison admitted after the game that he didn’t anticipate ever starting as a true freshman. The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Olentangy Orange product had the recruiting ranking – No. 12 overall – of a stud, but the idea was the freakishly athletic edge would need time to develop. That timeline has accelerated, as evidenced by his start on Saturday, which included a sack – though it was followed by a penalty due to the freshman flexing over the quarterback.
“I thought he did a good job,” Ryan Day said. “Unfortunately he gets the sack and they called the unsportsmanlike because he flexed over the quarterback. That was a learning lesson for Zach.”
Smith’s pair of sacks included one play with him chasing down the quarterback as he rolled out to the right. He used all of the speed that has him running a 4.7-second 40-yard dash to corral him for a sack.
The sophomore had only one sack this season before Saturday, missing three games earlier in the season due to injury and going sack-less the past three weeks.
“It feels good just to get back on track,” Smith said. “I feel like my technique has been a little off these past couple games. But I'm never really complaining. We get wins. As long as we get a good win and we keep going and this momentum doesn't stop, I'm fine.”
In order to maintain that momentum, Ohio State needs everything it can get from Smith and every other defensive end available to play.
The future, as it turns out, is now.
“We've got to show the world that we're capable of,” Smith said. “(Johnson is) just saying that not everybody knows about us yet, so we've got to show the world that, make everybody know.”
As Johnson says, it’s next man up for the Buckeyes, who hope that some day soon that next man can be Young.