First we heard it from the Buckeye coaching staff. Then we saw it up close and personal, live and in color.
The Ohio State defensive line has been wreaking havoc in camp this spring, so much so that first-year defensive coordinator Jim Knowles indicated last week that Larry Johnson’s unit has stood out to him above all else in his early assessments of the scarlet and gray defense.
“I think up front, it's been very impressive to me. Changing the line of scrimmage and the rate at which we rush the passer, I think that part of it has been very impressive,” Knowles said after practice last Tuesday. “The rest is what I expected.”
When Ohio State opened up practice for Student Appreciation Day on Saturday, occasionally going live during 11-on-11 reps in front of Buckeye fans and members of the media, the defensive line performance Knowles described was clear to see. Quarterbacks may have been off-limits for contact, but C.J. Stroud, Kyle McCord and Devin Brown all saw plenty of pressure during the scrimmage periods, resulting in sacks or forcing them to improvise outside of the pocket as the Buckeye passers were routinely flushed out of their comfort zone.
That all may be well and good for the Buckeye defensive line, a unit that failed to play up to its potential at times last season, but what does it say about Ohio State’s offensive line? With its five starters all but set at the top of the depth chart, the Buckeyes are still searching for answers after that to bolster a group that appears top-heavy at this stage of the spring.
“I think the depth that we've created at defensive line is going to be a huge advantage for us. I think our twos and threes are further along on the defensive side of the ball than they are on offense right now,” Ryan Day said after Monday’s practice. “So you're seeing a lot of pressure on the quarterback, especially with the twos and threes. We're hoping to get some of those guys back on offense. But I think when you look at the depth and some of the guys at defensive end and defensive tackle, we're two-, almost three-deep at some of those positions right now, which is going to be huge going into the fall.”
Ohio State returns three starters from its 2021 offensive line, all of whom were first-year starters a year ago. Luke Wypler returns at center, Dawand Jones is back at right tackle and Paris Johnson Jr. – the Buckeyes’ starting right guard last season – is moving out to left tackle for the first time in scarlet and gray. Beyond those three, fifth-year senior Matt Jones and sophomore Donovan Jackson round out a talented group with a high ceiling.
After that, though, things drop off quite a bit. Ohio State had Jackson and Matt Jones in its back pocket as reserves a year ago, but in 2022, the next men up may not be as apparent. Given Harry Miller’s medical retirement last month, Josh Fryar figures to be the sixth man for new position coach Justin Frye’s unit this season, but the redshirt sophomore is out for the whole spring after suffering an injury late in the season.
Ohio State can turn to fourth-year lineman Enokk Vimahi in a pinch, as the 6-foot-4 veteran has played inside and out at times for the Buckeyes, but the Hawaii native took snaps up front in just four games for the scarlet and gray a year ago.
Redshirt freshmen Zen Michalski and Ben Christman did not appear to be taking reps at Ohio State’s Student Appreciation Day practice, and redshirt sophomore Trey Leroux was seen wearing a walking boot at the end of the Saturday session.
“We do need to get more depth on the offensive line, that's for sure,” Day said. “I feel pretty good about five, six guys, but we need to get to seven, eight, nine, which was a strength for us the last couple years.”
As a contingency plan given the scarce depth up front, Jackson has been cross-training at left tackle this spring to give the Buckeyes another option in case of emergency. At 6-foot-4, Jackson may not have ideal size for a left tackle in the Big Ten, but his 6-foot-11 wingspan and “freak” athleticism – according to Wypler – have given the coaching staff confidence in his versatility on the outside.
Still, having to play Jackson at left tackle would not necessarily be ideal for Ohio State.
“(It’s) more about building depth for now. He's mostly been a guard,” Day said. “Even last year, he played some of that tight end position and then had played some tackle during mostly practice last year – I don't know if he ever played any reps at tackle last season. But he's very intelligent, very athletic, can process information at a pretty high level for his age. So we do that as sort of a depth, kind of rain insurance moving forward.
“As we start to get some guys back like Josh Fryar and some of the guys who are a little nicked up, we'll move him back to guard. But right now he's running with the ones at left guard.”
But even the Buckeyes at the top of the depth chart in Frye’s room have to sharpen their skills this spring in order to deal with the pass rush that J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer and company showed glimpses of in Saturday’s practice.
Paris Johnsons helmet comes flying off as he blocks J.T. Tuimoloau 1 on 1 in drills: pic.twitter.com/rJEGpzOM6l— Griffin Strom (@GriffinStrom3) April 2, 2022
Dawand Jones said Johnson’s transition back to the tackle position “started a little bit slow,” and both players must improve their pass blocking in order for the line to realize its full potential in 2022.
“As big as (Jones) is and as talented as he is, and same with Paris with the talent, their ability to handle one-on-one matchups, grown men on grown men one-on-one and be dominant, is a huge challenge,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said last week. “And the great players can do that. And the great quarterbacks have the ability to communicate, see, anticipate. And as a coach, the more we can make their jobs easier, the better you’re gonna be. … So Dawand and Paris both have to be guys that are great one-on-one against some of the premier matchups. And the best thing is we get those matchups in practice. So we get exposed to that on a daily basis.”
The good news for Frye, Wilson, Day and the rest of the Buckeye coaching staff is that the start of the new season is still five months out, with the rest of the spring and summer left for offensive linemen to heal up and develop. If the issue persists thereafter, though, the depth up front for the Buckeye line could be an important storyline to follow all season for Ohio State.