When the dust settled on the most important down during Saturday’s Tulsa game, a true freshman with just three snaps under his belt prior to kickoff came up with what might have been the biggest play of the night.
Tyleik Williams may not have started, but he was on the field halfway through the fourth quarter, when Tulsa needed to convert a crucial 3rd-and-7 in plus territory to have a chance at tying up a 27-20 ballgame with the Buckeyes. Hoping to stall the Golden Hurricane drive, Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson dialed up a stunt that sent his two defensive ends inside with Williams and Ty Hamilton setting the edge of the pocket.
Tulsa’s right tackle was left blocking air as Williams brushed by him in the confusion for a free run at quarterback Davis Brin. The 17-yard loss on Williams’ first career sack took Tulsa far out of range to go for it on fourth down, and the Golden Hurricane was outscored 14-0 the rest of the way.
“Tyleik’s a guy that stands out right now, he’s probably gonna see more time,” Johnson said at a press conference Tuesday.
Williams was the only player on Johnson’s defensive line to grade out as a champion following the performance, and his sack is one of just four that Ohio State has mounted this season while defensive struggles have been evident at every level. Williams’ sack was a bright spot for the Buckeyes, but they’ll need plenty more production in order to shut down opposing pass attacks moving forward.
“I’d like to see a little bit more of a pass rush,” head coach Ryan Day said after the game. “It was good to see Tyleik get that one, but we gotta do a little bit better job of making the quarterback uncomfortable.”
Finishing the game with three tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack, Williams seems to have done enough against Tulsa to earn him more time in the immediate future. It may be telling for the Ohio State defensive line that of the four players on the field for the aforementioned third down, two were true freshmen (Williams and J.T. Tuimoloau), one was a sophomore (Hamilton) and only one actually started the game (Javontae Jean-Baptiste).
“It’s kind of interesting when you have to do that, send some freshman guys out there, those guys are great, but that’s where we are,” Johnson said. “Our depth is what it is. We have some veteran players, and then we have some young players that need to play, and so we try to find a way to do that to get those guys ready. It’s a long season, we got a lot of football left, so I’m happy we can get them ready. As we get into the season, get into the Big Ten conference schedule, they’re gonna need those reps as we go forward.”
Even more interesting about Williams’ emergence is that unlike Tuimoloau, he was not a five-star high school recruit nor a top-100 prospect. Williams was just the No. 25 defensive lineman and the No. 166-rated player in the class of 2021, hailing from Unity Reed High School in Manassas, Virginia.
Johnson said Williams wasn’t even in particularly good shape upon arriving on campus in Columbus, and that he had to shed more than a few pounds in order to get on the field.
“He’s been a work in progress. He came in really heavy, he lost over 25 pounds,” Johnson said. “Now he’s where we want him to be, and he’s starting to show what we thought he would be; athletic, very athletic guy, got great quick movements, and he’s starting to turn into a good player. Played 21 snaps last week, we hope to increase that as we go forward, but looking forward to what he’s doing.”
Listed at 6-foot-3, 315 pounds on the Buckeyes’ roster, Johnson said Williams was on the heavy side of the 340-pound range when he got to Ohio State as an early enrollee this past January. Williams was much heavier than the 280-pound athlete Johnson had seen in high school prior to COVID-19.
“The pandemic hit, and like most people, sat around, ate and had fun. He must’ve ate too much,” Johnson said. “So when I saw him for the very first time when he showed up here on campus, he was 300-plus, and I was like, ‘Wow, what happened?’ But then when you start running and moving around, everybody in the building would go, ‘Wow, this guy can move for a big man.’ Just got to get in shape, gotta get in condition. That was the biggest challenge for him, getting in condition to be able to play at the speed that we need to play at. He’s there now, so now we should see some things moving forward.”
If there's anyone who wasn't caught off-guard by the success Williams enjoyed in just the third game of his career, it's the teammates that have gone up against him in practice on the interior of the offensive line. Fourth-year guard Matthew Jones said Wednesday that him and Williams often trade off back-and-forth with who wins a particular rep in practice.
Jones made sure to give Williams props on the sideline after his big play last weekend.
“I was not surprised because I believed he could do it,” Jones said. “He shows heart in practice and I believed he could’ve done it. I was pumped. I told him, ‘That’s the best thing you ever did.’ The twist and everything, it was great. Perfect timing.”
With six different defensive tackles playing at least eight snaps against Tulsa, it’s clear that Johnson has no problem playing with his rotation on the interior. Williams sounds like he’ll now be a major part of it as the Buckeyes look for any spark to boost the pass rush with the conference schedule quickly approaching.
“He’s got a great spirit, he works hard and he’s starting to show exactly what he can do,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of where he’s at right now.”