Out of all the positions on Ohio State’s depth chart right now, defensive tackle might be the one with the biggest depth question marks right now.
Tommy Togiai is in line to start for the Buckeyes at nose tackle, and Antwuan Jackson appears set to play a major role in the defensive tackle rotation, too – potentially as the starting 3-technique, though he can also play nose – as Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson described those two on Wednesday as the “foundation” of what the Buckeyes are doing on their interior defensive line.
Beyond those two, though, there’s far more uncertainty about what the rest of the rotation will look like.
That’s partially the case because two key veteran defensive tackles are currently working their way back from injuries. Senior Haskell Garrett has not yet been cleared to play after he was shot in the face in late August, and Johnson said the Buckeyes are taking a “wait-and-see” approach on when he’ll be back because he was injured in “a very sensitive area.” Johnson is hoping to have redshirt sophomore Taron Vincent back in time for the Oct. 24 season opener, but they’re “bringing him along slowly” after he missed all of last season with a torn labrum in his shoulder.
That leaves the Buckeyes with just five fully healthy scholarship defensive tackles: Togiai, Jackson, Jerron Cage, Jaden McKenzie and Ty Hamilton. Cage has been a back-of-the-depth chart player for his first three seasons at Ohio State, McKenzie appeared in just two games as a true freshman last season and Hamilton is a true freshman.
Even Togiai and Jackson were both third-teamers in last season’s defensive tackle rotation, which was led by a trio of fifth-year seniors in DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers who concluded their Ohio State careers in 2019.
So there’s reason for some concern about whether the Buckeyes’ inexperienced defensive tackles can step up and be the presence they need in the middle of their defensive front this year, and even more reason to question whether Ohio State will be able to maintain the multi-player rotations that Johnson likes to have at each defensive tackle spot, especially if any more players become unavailable due to injuries or COVID-19.
Johnson is still expressing confidence, though, that the Buckeyes will have the depth they need to play the way they want to play on the interior defensive line.
“We’ll have three guys who can play inside, nose tackle, and we’ll have three guys who can play three-technique,” Johnson said. “We have some young players who have done a great job coming along. So I think we’ll be OK starting the season, six guys on the inside that have an opportunity to play.”
Togiai knows he needs to be prepared to play as many snaps as Ohio State needs him to play, and Jackson knows he needs to be ready to play both defensive tackle spots as circumstances might call for. But they’re also optimistic that the other defensive tackles behind them will step up.
“I think we do have great depth,” Togiai said. “We have a lot of our young players that have stepped up and have played really well throughout practice this year. And I think the leaders, the older guys have done an incredible job – me, Antwuan, Haskell – have done a great job of leading the younger guys and showing them the way, like how we do things on the D-line.”
Johnson said Cage, like Jackson, could also see playing time at both nose tackle and 3-technique, and he’s happy with how McKenzie is developing as another 3-technique option.
“I really like Jaden McKenzie, he’s starting to make a push right now,” Johnson said. “He’s done a great job in camp. He’s up to about 285, and he’s shown value, he can do it.”
Ty Hamilton, who was the first summer enrollee in this year’s freshman class to lose his black stripe, is another defensive tackle who could potentially see snaps at either spot. Johnson said the Buckeyes see Hamilton as a 3-technique in the long term, but they’ve been giving him some snaps at nose tackle to “give him a chance to see what he can do.”
“Ty has been doing really well. Ty has put on 20 pounds since he’s been here. He came in at 260, he’s about 285 right now,” Johnson said. “So that’s going really well for him right now. I like where he’s at as a young player. He’s still in the development stage, but he’s really done a good job since he’s been here. He’s gotten stronger. He’s got a chance to be a player going forward.”
It’s also possible, though Johnson didn’t want to tip his hand either way, that the Buckeyes could move one of their defensive ends such as Tyler Friday inside to play 3-technique – as they already plan to do situationally in their Rushmen package – if they need to bolster their defensive tackle depth, given that they have what Johnson described Wednesday as five starting-caliber defensive ends, also including Jonathon Cooper, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Javontae Jean-Baptiste.
If Ohio State is actually going to continue to rotate three defensive tackles at each spot, Johnson is going to have to trust young players to be a part of that rotation and/or get creative with moving defensive linemen around in order to establish that depth. Some of that will be determined over the next two weeks as the Buckeyes conclude their preseason and get ready for their first game against Nebraska.
But if Johnson’s concerned about how that defensive tackle depth chart will come together, he didn’t show it on Wednesday.
“I think we’ve got enough bodies in there,” Johnson said. “We’ve just gotta see who’s gonna emerge as the player as we go forward. Two weeks left.”