Even though they’re the two highest-rated defensive ends that Ohio State has ever signed, J.T Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer probably won’t be starters this year.
They might not even be on the two-deep, at least not at the beginning of the season. Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste have already been in the defensive end rotation for the past two seasons, so Larry Johnson will likely lean on those four experienced veterans – or some combination of them – to play most of the snaps on the edge early in the year.
That said, Sawyer and Tuimoloau are too talented not to be in the mix for at least some playing time right off the bat. Both of them are strong candidates to be first-round NFL draft picks after just three years, so if the Buckeyes are going to maximize their return on investment in them, they need to be on the field this year. Johnson said this spring that Ohio State will “find a role” for Sawyer this year if he earns it, and it’s presumable he’ll take the same approach with Tuimoloau.
More importantly, Tuimoloau and Sawyer have the potential to immediately bolster Ohio State’s pass-rush, which wasn’t quite up to the Buckeyes’ usual standard last season.
Eventually, perhaps in 2022 and no later than 2023, Sawyer and Tuimoloau should be bookends on Ohio State’s starting defensive line. Even at a school that’s produced the likes of Chase Young and the Bosa brothers over the past decade, JTT and Jack could be as good as any defensive end tandem Ohio State has ever had if both of them live up to the hype.
If they begin living up to the hype immediately, either or both of them – perhaps especially Sawyer, who already looked like an impact player this spring while Tuimoloau was still playing high school football – could climb the depth chart quickly. They were both ranked among the top five overall prospects in the 2021 class for a reason; they could prove sooner than later that they ought to be fixtures in the rotation.
Going into a season that the Buckeyes will be opening with a pair of big games against Minnesota and Oregon, however, the best way to get them on the field early and give them a chance to make an instant impact could be by deploying them in the Rushmen package.
Ohio State hasn’t used the Rushmen package heavily over the past couple of seasons, more often than not keeping at least one defensive tackle on the field even in third-down pass-rushing situations. With all the talent and depth Ohio State has at defensive end on this year’s roster, though, the time is ripe for the four-defensive end package to be a significant piece of the Buckeyes’ pass-rush strategy once again – and it could be a major weapon.
Imagine this scenario: Ohio State’s opponent is facing 3rd-and-long, needing to pass for a first down to keep a drive alive. The Buckeyes substitute their defensive tackles out of the game in favor of Sawyer and Tuimoloau, who join projected starting defensive ends Harrison and Smith on the field. Across the line, Ohio State would have four exceptionally explosive athletes on the field, all of whom were ranked among the top 35 overall prospects in their respective recruiting classes.
If you’re an offensive line coach for a team that will play the Buckeyes this year, that scenario’s probably giving you nightmares.
On that line, Sawyer and Smith would likely man the edges, giving the Buckeyes a pair of outside pass-rushers with tremendous first-step quickness. Inside, both Harrison at 6-foot-6 and 268 pounds and Tuimoloau at 6-foot-4 and 277 pounds can be matchup nightmares, as each of them possess truly rare combinations of size and speed. Harrison has already played some occasional snaps at defensive tackle for Ohio State in pass-rushing situations, while Tuimoloau is big enough that he was listed as a defensive tackle early in the recruiting process – though he’ll be a defensive end in Ohio State’s base defense.
Friday and Jean-Baptiste could factor into the Rushmen equation, too. Friday, at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds, is another defensive end with the size and strength to kick inside and provide additional pass-rushing ability from the defensive tackle position. Jean-Baptiste was always going to need some time to develop as a defensive end after arriving at Ohio State at just 215 pounds, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a late-career breakout from the fourth-year edge rusher, who has linebacker athleticism but has now grown to 6-foot-5 and 253 pounds.
Ohio State already has an excellent interior penetrator playing defensive tackle full-time in Haskell Garrett, so it could make sense to keep him on the field with three defensive ends in the Rushmen package. Likewise, Taron Vincent also has high upside as an interior pass-rusher and is more than capable of having a breakthrough season in 2021. Ohio State experimented with a five-man defensive front in 2017, with Dre’Mont Jones playing nose tackle in between the defensive end quartet of Nick Bosa, Sam Hubbard, Tyquan Lewis and Jalyn Holmes, so that could be another option to put more defensive ends on the field and keep Garrett or Vincent in the game.
With a roster that includes 11 defensive linemen who are in at least their third year at Ohio State, Johnson will be primarily relying upon those veterans to lead the way on his defensive front this year. Elevated play from Harrison, Smith, Friday and Jean-Baptiste as base defensive ends might be the biggest key for the Buckeyes to have an elite pass-rush again. They’ll need defensive tackles like Antwuan Jackson, Jerron Cage and Vincent to step up in the base defense, particularly as run stoppers, to fill the void left by Tommy Togiai’s early departure. Noah Potter, Cormontae Hamilton, Jacolbe Cowan and Darrion Henry-Young are all versatile defensive linemen who can play both end and tackle that will be looking to force their way on the field, too.
Adding Sawyer and Tuimoloau to the mix, though, increases the game-changing potential of Ohio State’s defensive line in a big way. And utilizing the Rushmen package could be a great first step toward unleashing that potential, making Ohio State’s pass-rush more dangerous and enabling them to make a real immediate impact on games, without putting too much on their plates in their first games as true freshmen.