Testaments to the stature of Ohio State’s football program come in numerous forms.
Conference championships, primetime victories, recruiting coups, or, in the case of Taron Vincent last fall, forgotten, sidelined five-star prospects.
Oftentimes, the loss of somebody as talented or as heralded as Taron Vincent would set a team back significantly. The 6-foot-2, 295-pound interior lineman was the nation’s 20th-best overall recruit and the No. 1 defensive tackle when he signed with the Buckeyes in 2018. As a freshman, he ended the season with a season-high 19 snaps in the Rose Bowl, potentially springboarding him toward a starting role in a post-Dre’Mont Jones world. Instead, a torn labrum in his right shoulder a week before the 2019 season kicked off kept him out the entire fall.
Most programs that don’t collect five-star recruits like candy on Halloween would respond by wilting. In the case of Ohio State, however, defensive line coach Larry Johnson simply reloaded. Jashon Cornell started at 3-technique, Haskell Garrett backed him up, and the Buckeyes’ defensive line thrived.
Technically, Johnson again shouldn't need a fully healthy Vincent to put together a quality interior defensive line in 2020. Garrett and Jerron Cage return as fourth-year 3-techniques, and Tommy Togiai is joined by Antwuan Jackson Jr. at nose tackle. Together, they’d be a formidable unit.
But provided Vincent’s healthy, and Johnson says he is, then he raises the ceiling for what Ohio State can expect out of its defensive tackles.
“I think it will be a very competitive fall when we get going again,” Johnson said a couple of weeks ago. “Who's going to be the guy who jumps out? So that's what I'm looking forward to. (Vincent) has the skillset, certainly has the mental phase of the game. Now it's just a matter of playing football – again.”
There’s a level of uncertainty – solely due to the injury that has kept him out of the eyes of spectators for an extended time period – about what Vincent might bring when healthy in 2020.
As a freshman, he managed three tackles and one sack in fewer than 100 total snaps because of the veterans – including Jones – ahead of him on the depth chart. Yet because of his status as the first five-star defensive tackle to sign with Ohio State since Alphonso Townsend in 2000 combined with the positive comments about his development from Johnson and others, he’s viewed as a promising 3-technique with star potential.
Around this point last year, Cornell said Vincent had earned the nickname of “Battering Ram” because “once he gets off the ball, he's knocking everybody off.” The torn labrum has forced everybody to have to wait a year to see the developments that led to such a moniker.
This spring, months removed from having his massive brace removed from his right arm, might have been a chance to get a glimpse. Vincent could have spent valuable time taking reps during spring practices. He began the spring as a limited participant, easing his way back to normalcy. Instead, after three practices, the coronavirus pandemic led to the cancelation of, well, everything.
“You know, it's tough,” Johnson said. “He missed those (spring practice) reps. We can't get those back. But I was really pleased that he returned from his rehab, from his injury really well. I think our staff did a great job of getting him ready, and just as we were getting going, you started to see some of the things you recruited him for. Just unfortunate we ended so early. But we're hopeful we'll get back together and get going again. I'm really looking forward to some big things for him going into the fall.”
From Ohio State’s perspective, getting a breakout season out of Vincent would especially matter due to the offseason attrition across the line.
On the outside, Johnson will have to make up for the loss of Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Young. He'll turn to Zach Harrison, Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste to collectively step up their games to ensure the defensive ends don’t take a significant step back.
Inside, while it might not get the widespread attention as the race to replace Young, Johnson has the not-so-simple task of replacing Cornell, DaVon Hamilton and Robert Landers, who combined to play 1,004 snaps in 2019. The trio of defensive tackles was unheralded yet consistently productive last season. All three had ample starting experience, too, which the Buckeyes mostly lack out of their defensive tackles currently on the roster.
“I think the inside guys are the biggest key,” Johnson said.
Among the defensive tackles, Johnson has a few veteran options. Togiai could be in line for a standout season as a first-year starting nose tackle. Garrett, a one-time top-100 recruit, has been solid. Both Cage and Jackson, once ranked as the top junior-college prospect, have flashed in limited opportunities.
None of them, though, appear to have quite the still unrealized potential of a healthy version of Vincent. That's especially the case at 3-technique, where both Garrett and Cage have shown themselves to be high-floor, low-ceiling interior linemen. Vincent has a notably higher ceiling than either of them, and if he can remain uninjured with Johnson coaxing him toward it, Ohio State would benefit greatly in 2020.
“One thing Taron has really done a good job is developing skills,” Johnson said. “We want Taron to be a great pass rusher at the 3-technique. You guys know how I feel about the pass rush at the 3-tech position – that's the guy who's the key to our defense a lot of times. So he has to take on that role. He can play the run well, is a very physical player. He runs about 295 (pounds).
“He's really the ideal of what we're looking for in a guy to play that position.”