Both eyes of Taron Vincent, as he stood in the Lucas Oil Stadium locker room after his Ohio State teammates had secured the Big Ten championship on Dec. 7, 2019, were trained on spring football. Having not played all year after tearing the labrum in his right shoulder in the preseason, he knew he wouldn’t be ready to go until March and April. But by then, he said, he would “be good” to go.
As it turns out, his own projection was a tad optimistic. Vincent wasn’t healthy enough for full-go practices by the time spring camp rolled around last year, and the COVID-19 pandemic only set his recovery back further.
“I wasn't really able to get the full amount of treatment that I possibly needed,” Vincent said on Friday. “We was shut down and stuff, so we wasn't in the facility and stuff. So that was just a little struggle with everything. It kind of delayed everything, so when we got back I was kind of behind a little bit.”
Even by the time the season got underway in late October, Vincent wasn’t ready to go. He sat out the opener against Nebraska before he was integrated back into action the next week with 11 snaps at Penn State. Defensive line coach Larry Johnson eventually worked him back into the rotation, and Vincent accrued seven tackles in 150 snaps, but he never played more than 28 snaps in a game.
All throughout the prolonged recovery period, Johnson kept hearing from his father, former NFL cornerback Troy Vincent, that the 6-foot-2, 300-pound 3-technique was talking about how much he wanted to be out there. He thought he owed something and couldn’t deliver on it.
“I’m letting the team down.”
“I’m letting coach Johnson down.”
Vincent’s father ultimately got the message through to his son that injuries happen. They’re a nasty part of football, but they’re also sometimes unavoidable.
“I'll just tell you what he did. He went to work,” Johnson said. “He didn't sit around and pout about it. He went to work at it and rehabbed. I think that's why he's at the position he is right now. That he worked hard in rehab to get back on the field, and that really accelerated it when we started practice here. I'm really happy with where he's at right now. He deserves a break, and he's got a great break. We're looking for really great things from him this fall.”
Twenty months after his shoulder injury, 16 months after he zeroed in on a 2020 spring return, 13 months after coronavirus caused spring ball to be canceled and five months after he played in his first game since his freshman season, Vincent can finally say he’s on the right path.
He believes that himself. He says he's “been fully healthy this whole offseason” which has allowed him to develop his skill set that'll “take me to the next level.” But perhaps just as importantly, his coaches and teammates have been effusive in their praise of him and what he's in the process of becoming.
Most notably, head coach Ryan Day went out of his way to bring his name up on Monday.
“I think Taron Vincent has a chance to have a breakout year for us,” he said. “It started off in the offseason with coach Mick (Marotti). He was gold in the strength and conditioning for us this quarter for champions. His play has been excellent. He's definitely playing his best football, and it all started in the offseason. He gave himself to coach Mick. He got gold. And now he's about to take off. If you were asking me probably the most improved right now, I would probably say Taron up front.”
Johnson sees similar growth from the fourth-year interior lineman. To him, it all comes down to the injury being in the rear view.
“That's the difference. He wasn't healthy last year. He couldn't play,” Vincent said. “He played late in the season when he got really healthy, but he didn't play a lot of football last year. And so now, he's a healthier player, and he's going through spring ball, he's going through a winter workout. He's in a really great position right now. He's what we thought he would be when we brought him and recruited him. He's having a great spring right now. He really is, because he's healthy.
“He's playing fast. He's strong at the point of attack. All the things we look for from a 3-technique.”
Johnson has said almost the exact same things when describing Vincent over the past few years. Last spring when talking about 3-techniques, he called Vincent the “ideal of what we're looking for in a guy to play that position.” Johnson has long been enamored with the former five-star recruit’s pass-rushing potential from the inside, and he’s getting a chance to see it this spring.
Jashon Cornell once called Vincent a “battering ram,” and his teammates essentially described one when talking about Vincent’s spring practice performance this week.
“Taron took last season, he got way stronger,” Zach Harrison said. “You can notice it. He's locking dudes out. He's eating dudes up and he's improving on his pass rush every day. I think Taron's going to be a big factor for us on the inside.”
Antwuan Jackson added: “I'd say we're just alike. We just get off the ball. Just attack. I like how he attacks the offensive guards in practice. It's ridiculous. I give him the utmost respect of what he be doing in practice.”
Even with a breakthrough seeming more likely than ever before, Vincent might not start. He plays the same position at defensive tackle as returning All-American Haskell Garrett. The linemen did mention that they’re getting chances to play at both 1-technique and 3-technique, however, which could have them on the field at the same time at different points in games.
If Vincent does turn into the disruptive player his coaches and teammates are selling him as this spring, that’s a scary thought for opposing offensive lines.
“I just feel it physically,” Vincent said. “I feel stronger, faster, just more explosive off the ball and stuff like that. I feel it with my physical body. And the game kind of slowing down now. I'm older now. I can see stuff happening before it happens.”