When Ohio State releases its official depth chart prior to next week’s season opener against Nebraska, there will likely be no shortage of “OR”s at the defensive end position.
Regardless of which two defensive ends will end up starting against the Cornhuskers on Oct. 24 – it would be a surprise if Jonathon Cooper isn’t one of them – the Buckeyes will likely list all of their top five defensive ends as co-starters on their official depth chart.
Why? Because Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson believes all five of them – Cooper, Tyler Friday, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyreke Smith – are all worthy of being starters, and he plans on giving each of them the opportunity to start at some point this season.
“You’ve got five guys, and they all could be starting anywhere in the country,” Johnson said Wednesday. “So I’m gonna treat them that way. They’re all five starters for me right now. So we’re gonna do a good job of making sure each guy gets a chance to start as we go through the season. And I’m very pleased with where we’re at right now with those five guys.”
All five of them already started at least one game last season, as the Buckeyes didn’t have a steady starting second defensive end opposite Chase Young. Cooper, who also started all but one game in 2018, started all four games he played in 2019 but redshirted the rest of the season due to an ankle injury. Smith and Friday also started four games each while Harrison started two and Jean-Baptiste started one. Harrison played the most total snaps among them (284), but only 41 more than Smith and 64 more than Friday even though they each missed three games.
It’s unlikely any of this year’s defensive ends will be on the field constantly like Young was last year, but that’s typically the way Johnson likes it anyway. While Young played 63 or more snaps in each of Ohio State’s five most competitive games last season, Johnson believes it is ideal to have a rotation where each defensive end only plays 30-35 plays a game, enabling all of them to be fresh whenever they are in the game.
“You can’t play 60 plays at full-speed. No one can. But you can play 30-35 plays at full speed. And every play you put on video tape is a high-speed play. And I think it helps them. So I think our guys understand that,” Johnson said.
Johnson expects this year’s rotation among five defensive ends to be similar to the rotation he deployed among four defensive ends in 2017, when Jalyn Holmes, Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis all played between 534 to 542 snaps for the season (an average of just over 38 per game).
Based on what they have said in recent media interviews, it sounds like the five defensive ends who will be in that rotation have bought into Johnson’s plan.
“The benefit is to keep guys fresh,” Harrison said. “So let’s say I play a few plays, I get tired, I feel like I can go hard those plays because I know the guy coming in right after me is gonna have no drop-off and go just as hard, he’s going to go hard for his plays and boom, right back in the game. So it’s just gonna keep us all fresh and keep us all ready to play as fast as we can when we’re in the game.”
Because they all have different skill sets, they believe the rotation makes it more difficult for opposing offenses to game plan against them.
“The thing that’s so exciting about our D-ends is that we got flavors,” said Friday. “Everybody brings something different to the table. Javontae and Zach with their speed and their length. Coop with his ability to control the line of scrimmage with his strength and also get off the ball. And Tyreke, he’s just so explosive overall, just so twitchy. So we all got these different things that we bring to the table, and they all work out well.”
“They all could be starting anywhere in the country. So I’m gonna treat them that way.”– Larry Johnson on Jonathon Cooper, Tyler Friday, Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyreke Smith
Jean-Baptiste believes it gets in opposing offensive tackles’ heads just to see different defensive ends going in and out of the lineup throughout the game.
“Being fresh is the best thing, because when that tackle’s getting tired, then it’s just a new guy, it’s a new face for him to go (against) every time, and he’s like ‘Whoa,’ he doesn’t know what he got himself into,” Jean-Baptiste said.
While they’re all competing with each other for snaps and starts, the Ohio State defensive ends are also close friends, and they’re trying to help each other get better. When they’re not taking a rep in practice, they’ll watch the others and speak up if they see something their teammate could do better, which they believe makes them all improve.
“I think everybody can learn from everybody,” Smith said. “Everybody’s different. Everybody rushes different. Everybody has different strengths and weaknesses, and we’re all like brothers in the D-line unit. The five D-ends, we’re really, really tight. We can take constructive criticism and if we mess up on something, we’re good enough and we’re tight enough that we can tell each other, ‘Hey man, you gotta do this better,’ without us taking it personal, and I think that goes a long way, because we can only get better and better from there. The sky’s the limit for us.”
Harrison said the defensive ends “all coach each other up,” and he believes the collective success of the unit is what will ultimately enable him to have the most success as an individual.
“I’ll go a rep, and then all the other ends will coach me up on what I could have did better. Or somebody else will do a rep, like Tyler will get a rep, Tyreke will get a rep, Coop will get a rep and I’m looking at them thinking ‘OK, what things can they improve on?’” Harrison said. “Because I just know, if they get better, I’m gonna have more success. And if I get better, they’re gonna have more success. And that’s kind of how we view it. We’re all just in this together. We’re all trying to improve each other as much as we can. Because it’s really just love for each other.”
While the current expectation is that five defensive ends will play a similar number of snaps, Johnson said that’s subject to change if some of those defensive ends begin to separate themselves from the others with their performance. There’s also the possibility of players missing time for health reasons, of course, but that’s the biggest benefit of having five defensive ends the Buckeyes feel confident playing with the game on the line, while Johnson believes Noah Potter and Darrion Henry can also provide quality depth if needed.
The defensive ends have enormous shoes to fill following the departure of Young, and while all the defensive ends expected to be in this year’s rotation could be future NFL players themselves, it’s unrealistic to expect any of them to single-handedly make the same level of impact that Young made for Ohio State as the national defensive player of the year last season.
Ohio State doesn’t necessarily need an individual superstar to have another excellent defensive end rotation, though; it just needs everyone in the rotation to be productive when they are on the field.
“Obviously Chase was an amazing player, and replacing him isn’t going to be easy, but I’m very confident in our guys,” Cooper said. “We’re not just one player. We’re the Rushmen. So we rush together, and I feel like us all coming back who are better, who have seen time in the game and have had playing time, are really going to step up for us this year.”
If people outside the program expect Ohio State’s defensive ends to take a step back because Young is no longer in Columbus, that will only serve as more motivation for them to show they can make plays, too.
“The key thing that Coach J keeps telling us, the most exciting part about the season, is that we’re a bunch of no-names,” Friday said. “We don’t have a Bosa, we don’t have a Chase Young right now, that’s just how we like it. We never stopped working ever since that last game last year against Clemson, and I think especially Javontae, Zach, Tyreke, Coop and myself, I think we took that personal to being the best defensive ends that we can be.”