Larry Johnson was out in his yard cutting his grass in early July when he felt his phone buzz.
The Ohio State defensive line coach looked down and saw a text from prized 2021 defensive line recruit J.T. Tuimoloau.
“Coach, I’m going to call you in about 20 minutes,” the text message read.
Johnson moved to the steps on his porch as he tried to compose himself. So much effort had been put in from Johnson and other OSU staffers in recruiting Tuimoloau. The latest push to land the No. 4 recruit in the nation involved nearly every member of the Buckeyes’ coaching staff greeting the Sammamish, Washington resident at John Glenn Columbus International Airport on June 17 for an all-out official visit. At long last, OSU was going to get its answer on if the cherry on top of an already-strong 2021 class was coming.
“I waited like a little kid,” Johnson said, detailing the anticipation of Tuimoloau’s phone call. He considers himself a patient man, but that day was truly a test of patience.
Finally, the phone rang.
“Coach, do you have a minute,” Tuimoloau asked. Johnson, an OSU assistant since 2014, responded in the affirmative.
“We’ve decided what we’re going to do,” Tuimoloau told Johnson. The defensive line coach said he almost passed out from the sheer anticipation at that point.
“You don’t know where that’s going to go,” Johnson said. “I don’t want bad news.”
Fortunately for Johnson, any crisis was averted. “Coach, I’m going to be a Buckeye,” Tuimoloau said.
Johnson screamed so loudly, his wife Christine rushed outside wondering what in the world was going on. She asked if he was all right.
“We got J.T.,” Johnson said, beaming at his wife.
Tuimoloau officially committed to the Buckeyes on July 4 and arrived on campus later that month. Two weeks into preseason camp, the praise Tuimoloau received on the recruiting trail has been verified. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound true freshman has turned plenty of heads in Columbus, leading to him shedding his black stripe only 10 practices into his Buckeye career.
"One thing about him, he came into town in great shape,” Johnson said. “And you don’t come in and start and get where he’s going unless you’re in great shape. He’s got a really high football IQ. And so he really understands the football game. And he’s a video guy, he’s a study guy, and I think that’s why he’s starting to advance too fast is because he’s got some things that you have to have if you want to be an elite player. But his work ethic is off the charts.”
When OSU’s defensive linemen spoke to reporters Tuesday afternoon, the most popular players of discussion were two true freshmen: Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer.
"He’s great,” Haskell Garrett said of Tuimoloau. “He’s a student of the game. He kind of reminds me of me when I was a freshman, just trying to soak up everything and just learn. He’s just a real good student of the game and just wants to be the best person he can be on and off the field."
That speaks to how much hype has surrounded those freshmen dating back to their recruitments. Especially considering the Buckeyes boast the likes of Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Garrett, Antwuan Jackson, Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Taron Vincent, giving Ohio State’s defensive line no shortage of veteran depth and star power.
“The speed of college ball is way different than high school ball, but I think all my boys and the D-line crew is helping me, getting me up to pace and continuing to push me, make me better,” Tuimoloau told Eleven Warriors at an NIL Management event on Aug. 8. “It’s a great honor just to learn from these dudes. For them to be my big brother and always correct me if I’m doing things wrong or teach me their ways, because they’ve been doing what they’re doing. So just to be around them and to learn from them and just be good friends with them, brothers with them, I love it.”
Johnson wouldn't commit to putting Tuimoloau or Sawyer in the Rushmen package right away, but Ryan Day said last week that Tuimoloau’s fast start to fall camp has put him in a position to earn playing time right away.
“He’s made up a lot of ground in a very short amount of time,” Day said. “He’s made a lot of plays and we’re having a hard time blocking him.”
Johnson already said this spring that he would find a role for Sawyer if Sawyer earns it, and call Johnson cautiously optimistic Tuimoloau can see the field early, too.
"I’m hoping he can,” Johnson said. “He certainly has the tools to do that. Right now it’s how fast he can learn our defense, moving forward, playing the scheme and then playing at a fast pace. People don’t understand that when you come from high school, it’s not as fast as they think it is until you hit the college campus, and now getting him up to speed. He’s starting to work on that.”
Should Tuimoloau earn an immediate spot in the defensive line rotation, Harrison won’t be surprised.
"J.T.’s big and strong and athletic,” Harrison said. “Those are probably his biggest assets. He’s still a freshman so he’s still growing into his body, he’s got a lot of room to fill out and it’s going to be a huge asset for the Buckeyes in the next coming years."