Third-Year Reset: Tyreke Smith Seeking Breakthrough to Become Ohio State's Next Great Pass-Rusher

By Dan Hope on June 25, 2020 at 8:36 am
Tyreke Smith

As Ohio State’s recruiting class of 2018 enters its pivotal third season in Columbus, we’re taking a look back at each of their first two years as Buckeyes and look ahead at what to expect from them in 2020 and beyond with the Third-Year Reset.

Ohio State will be counting on its class of 2018, which is the highest-rated recruiting class OSU has ever signed, to step up in a big way as it looks to make another run to the College Football Playoff despite the departures of many key players from last season. 

Each of them have now been with the Buckeyes for two years, and by the end of the upcoming season, all of them will either be on the back end of their Ohio State careers or off to the NFL. So while most of them haven’t played major roles for the Buckeyes yet, the time for them to deliver on their potential is now.

One of the most highly touted third-year Buckeyes entering the 2020 season is Tyreke Smith, who was ranked as the No. 34 overall prospect and No. 4 defensive end in the 2018 class. While he wasn’t quite the five-star prospect that Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Zach Harrison were out of high school, he was close, and he’s been viewed as a prime candidate to continue Ohio State’s run of elite pass-rushers as a result.

Smith hasn’t yet made a big name for himself as a Buckeye, but now that Young is in the NFL, he’s a popular pick to break out and become a much-needed impact player for Ohio State’s defensive line in his junior year.

Before He Became a Buckeye

Even though he only played two years of high school football, that was enough for Smith to emerge as one of the top defensive end prospects in the country. Also a star on the basketball court at Cleveland Heights High School, where he played alongside Ohio State wide receiver Jaylen Harris in both sports, Smith received offers from double-digit schools before he ever even played a snap for the Tigers. He earned an offer from the Buckeyes after just one season on the gridiron.

As a senior, Smith recorded 70 total tackles with 23 tackles for loss and 11 sacks – while he also caught eight passes for 192 yards and four touchdowns as a tight end – to earn state co-defensive player of the year honors from the Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association. 

Smith was initially a silent commit to Penn State prior to his senior season at Cleveland Heights, but ultimately chose to sign with Ohio State – announcing his decision at the Under Armour All-America Game – after determining that Larry Johnson and the rest of the Buckeyes’ coaching staff could develop him better than any other school.

Career to Date

Smith saw playing time in all 14 of Ohio State’s games as a true freshman for a total of 183 snaps, but recorded only nine total tackles with no sacks. As Smith revealed last September, he played his entire freshman season with a groin injury, for which he eventually underwent surgery last summer.

After sitting out the 2019 season opener, Smith started to flash his potential in his first game of his sophomore season against Cincinnati, when he recorded his first career sack.

He continued to be bit by the injury bug throughout his sophomore season, though. He missed another two games with an undisclosed injury, then fractured his hand later in the year. Though he was able to play through the hand injury, his production was limited as he finished the season with just two more sacks – both in a blowout win over Maryland – and 12 total tackles with five total tackles for loss.

“The health issues have hindered a little part of my game, but I'm not letting that be a blockade on me,” Smith said in December. “I'm just gonna keep pushing, keep grinding, keep doing what I gotta do and just make sure my body's right.”

Smith started four games for the Buckeyes in 2019 and finished the season with 243 snaps played, third among defensive ends behind Young and Harrison.

Third-Year Outlook

It isn’t realistic to expect Smith, or any defensive end on Ohio State’s roster, to singlehandedly make the kind of impact in 2020 that Young made in 2019, given that Young had a school-record 16.5 sacks and was the most dominant defensive player in college football. That said, Ohio State needs multiple defensive ends to step up if it’s going to continue to have an elite defensive line in 2020, and Smith is certainly expected to be one of them.

As the top defensive end in Ohio State’s recruiting class one year after Young and two years after Bosa, Smith has always been expected to be the Buckeyes’ next great pass-rusher and future early-round NFL draft pick after them, so he’ll enter this year with as much pressure to perform as any third-year Buckeye.

Don’t expect him to shy away from those expectations.

“I want to be the best D-end that comes out of here, and that’s my personal goal,” Smith said in September. “I know I’m with the best coach, and I got my teammates around me that are going to get me better.”

Even with that said, Smith is no lock to start this season. Jonathon Cooper, who was also a top-35 overall recruit in his class, is back for an unexpected fifth-year senior season after redshirting last year, and he’s a veteran of 17 starts for the Buckeyes. Harrison, though one year younger than Smith, might enter 2020 with the highest expectations of any defensive end after starting over Smith in the Fiesta Bowl to end last season.

Regardless of who starts, though, Smith is in line for no shortage of playing time this season, as it’s likely Johnson will rotate all three of them regularly, with fellow third-years Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste also in the rotation. While Young rarely came off the field last season, it’s likely the Buckeyes will go back to more of a true defensive end rotation this year, which means Smith needs to be prepared to be a leader and a playmaker at all times.

At 6-foot-4 and 267 pounds with excellent athleticism for his size, Smith has flashed the potential to be great. Now, the Buckeyes are counting on him to turn that into consistent production. He’ll need to stay healthy in order to maximize his production, but he has more than enough talent to be a breakthrough star and should be ready to make that leap after two years of development with Johnson.

“I want to be the best D-end that comes out of here, and that’s my personal goal.”– Tyreke Smith

Beyond 2020

If Smith is able to have a breakout third season this fall, it’s well within the realm of possibility that he could be an early-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft. He has the physical tools that scouts look for in an NFL defensive end, and the success that other recent Larry Johnson pupils have had at the next level certainly won’t hurt his cause.

That said, he’ll need to have an excellent 2020 season to maximize his draft stock after a relatively quiet start to his career. So while he’s always been a candidate to potentially go pro after just three years, it might well be in his best interest – unlike Young and both Bosa brothers, who were clearly ready to play in the NFL after their junior seasons – to stay at Ohio State for his senior year.

That would be an ideal scenario for Ohio State, as it would likely mean losing only Cooper from its defensive end rotation after this season, and set up Smith and Harrison – with another year of experience under their belts – to be one of the nation’s best defensive end pairings in 2021.

Smith would also be a strong candidate to be a team captain if he stays for his senior season, and would certainly be looked upon as a leader of the defensive line even more than he already could be this year.

If Smith has the kind of season as a junior that positions him to declare for next year’s NFL draft, that would be great news for Ohio State’s 2020 defense. As of now, though, his chances of living up to his own expectations of being a Buckeye great and a high draft pick would seem most likely to be accomplished with two more years at Ohio State as a top-of-the-rotation defensive end.

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