Ohio State Defensive Line “Taking It More Personal Now” After Disappointing Performance in 2021

By Griffin Strom on March 26, 2022 at 8:35 am
Jack Sawyer, Zach Harrison

At times last season, Ohio State’s defensive line was exactly what Ryan Day expected it to be: the strength of the Buckeye defense. But in too many crucial moments, including both of the Buckeyes’ losses, it was anything but.

In order for that to change in 2022, Larry Johnson’s unit has had to identify what went wrong and how it can fill in those holes ahead of the new year. The same can be said for every level of the Buckeye defense, which ranked outside the nation’s top 25 in nearly every major statistical category, but given that Day has once again branded Johnson’s group the tip of the spear defensively, the change in mindset starts up front for Ohio State.

“We definitely know that we weren’t where we were supposed to be, and the term Silver Bullet is thrown around, we kind of took that for granted,” senior defensive end Zach Harrison said Thursday. “We’re taking it more personal now, we know that there was a standard that was set at Ohio State years before we were even born, and we’re the next up to hold that legacy and hold that standard. We’re taking pride in that and all of us know that’s where he need to get to.”

The nation’s sixth-best run defense in 2020, Ohio State fell to No. 28 in that category this past season, giving up a total of 566 yards and a whopping nine touchdowns on the ground in regular-season defeats to Oregon and Michigan. Had either one of those losses been avoided, the Buckeyes might have earned a trip to the College Football Playoff. Even in Ohio State’s Rose Bowl matchup with Utah, the Utes galloped for 226 yards and a pair of rushing scores in a 48-45 result that the Buckeyes edged out in the game’s waning minutes.

Uncharacteristic of the Buckeye defenses that came before, sophomore defensive end Jack Sawyer said some former Ohio State defenders have even gotten involved in helping refocus the current crop of players this offseason.

“We talk about that every day. We had a couple past players talk to us about it too. Being a Silver Bullet, you can’t take it for granted,” Sawyer said. “I think last year maybe we kind of just expected things to happen because it did earlier, years previously. We just expected to win. I think kind of we got complacent a little bit, and that’s why we slipped up a couple times here and there, and almost slipped up in the Rose Bowl again. I think this year we’re just taking everything more seriously and really trying to lock into every little detail.”

Sawyer didn’t say specifically which former players delivered that message, but said the team also watched a video that contained multiple generations of Silver Bullets past that helped to fire the team up over the offseason.

“There was a video we watched, and there was a bunch of them talking, like a bunch of them from way back from when it started, too. I can’t really remember all of their names, but there’s a lot of good players on there,” Sawyer said. “It was eye-opening hearing them talk about it, because they get so passionate talking about it still to this day. They kind of kicked us in our ass a little bit, get us moving a little bit about it. Ever since then, we haven’t really looked back from it.”

After the way the 2021 season went for the Buckeyes, Day has placed a heightened sense of importance on leadership and accountability. The latter term was mentioned multiple times in Day’s search for a new defensive coordinator, and now with Jim Knowles in that post, the Buckeye coaching staff is looking for the same thing from its players.

That process started in winter workouts under the direction of strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, but Sawyer said it’s already paying dividends on the field during spring practice, as well.

“This offseason, emphasis was all on leadership. Coach Mick and Coach Day thought we lacked that a little bit last year, so this offseason they’ve been drilling that into us and trying to make everybody a better leader,” Sawyer said. “I think it’s kinda helped all of us get closer together as well. Our D-line, we’ve just been busting our asses this offseason, so we’re looking forward to be able to show defensively who we are this year.”

Ohio State didn’t lack veterans on the defensive line last year, and even with Haskell Garrett, Tyreke Smith and Antwuan Jackson turning pro, the Buckeyes still returning a sixth-year senior in Jerron Cage, fifth-year seniors Tyler Friday, Taron Vincent and Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and Harrison – a fourth-year senior – just to name a few.

For a young interior lineman like sophomore Tyleik Williams, the emphasis the coaching staff has placed on leadership has already led to noticeable changes in his position room.

“We definitely have a lot of leaders now. Last year we had leaders, but now we all want to be like one,” Williams said Thursday. “That’s I think what kind of separates it. Now we’re all coming together, we all know what we got to do this year to get better. Gotta keep striving forward.”

What could make the group special is its mix of old and young talent, with five-star sophomores Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau coming off the edge and Williams – who was second on the team in sacks as a true freshman – on the interior. Sawyer said that combination could be lethal for opposing offensive lines if all parties maximize their potential this offseason.

“I think the sky’s the limit. It could be something that no one’s ever seen before,” Sawyer said. “We all truly believe that as well. I think last year maybe (the freshmen) kind of got lost in the moment that we weren’t playing that much, and it kind of affected us a little bit. But we just put our head down and went back to work, and this spring you can already see it how the hard work’s paying off. I’m just really excited to see these guys get a chance too.”

Both Sawyer and Harrison will readily admit that there were times last season when the Ohio State defensive line was not nearly as dominant as it should have been, but the early indications out of spring practice – at least as Sawyer tells it – are that some of those issues are well on their way to being remedied already.

“I think we already fixed that now, because we can see it in practice,” Sawyer said. “(Thursday) we had a really good day. I think towards the end of the Rose Bowl, too, you started to see quarterbacks not being able to step up in the pocket like you’re used to seeing Ohio State defensive lines do. Because obviously when you got a great defensive line, it’s hard for a quarterback to get the ball out right. 

“We’re working towards being one of those defensive lines all season every snap this year, so I think you guys will see that.”

View 74 Comments