It’s not the most glamorous group on the Buckeye roster, but the interior of Ohio State’s defensive line may actually be its most important.
Ohio State’s run defense struggled mightily in both of its losses in 2021 and heavily contributed to Utah’s 45-point explosion in the Rose Bowl. Shoring up the inside of Larry Johnson’s line is a priority amid Ohio State’s general defensive reconstruction this offseason, but new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles has only spoken positively about what he’s seen from the unit since taking over the reins at the start of the year.
If that trend continues through the fall, the Buckeyes’ larger goals may not seem too grandiose, especially given the pieces in place on the other side of the ball.
“I feel great (about the interior defensive line). There's a lot of guys competing, there's a lot of guys who showed the ability to make plays, guys who have experience," Knowles said this spring. "I think it's just a great mix. We're gonna be able to do a lot of good things.”
The mix Knowles referred to includes a smattering of veterans with a wealth of experience and a promising group of young up-and-comers that may possess even more talent.
Ohio State has some significant players to replace in the group, as All-American tackle Haskell Garrett departed this offseason along with fellow 2021 starter Antwuan Jackson. But with the batch Knowles and company still have on hand, there’s plenty of reason to think the Buckeyes can be just as good – if not better – than it was in that department a season ago.
One such reason is the potential of Taron Vincent, a five-star recruit in the 2018 class, to finally blossom into the player he projected to be out of high school. Vincent has shown flashes of brilliance, but injuries have often held him back from producing at a high level. A starter for much of the 2021 season, Vincent finished with 23 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack. If he has the year many believe he’s capable of this season, those numbers should all be higher by the end of 2022.
“I think Taron is going to be great. I mean, he's got experience, he showed great leadership, great attitude, open to the process, wanting to learn the new system,” Knowles said this spring. “And he's smart. He picked things up quickly. So I think the sky's the limit.”
Vincent, a projected starter at three-technique, is adjusting to Knowles’ new system along with the rest of the Buckeye defenders. But for a player entering his fifth season of college football, that change might not be as drastic as it is for the more inexperienced Buckeyes. The same can be said for sixth-year senior Jerron Cage, who figures to be another asset for Ohio State after tallying four tackles for loss and a scoop-and-score touchdown in 2021.
Fans may be more excited to see what a couple of underclassmen tackles can do with more snaps this year. Perhaps most promising of all is Tyleik Williams, who was second only to Garrett in sacks last season with five as a true freshman. Williams’ 6.5 tackles for loss were also tied for second on the Ohio State roster, and both stats are made more impressive by the fact that he played only the sixth-most snaps among Buckeye defensive tackles.
There’s little doubt Williams will play many more than the 183 snaps he logged in his first year with the Buckeyes, especially considering the buzz surrounding the Virginia native’s progress so far this offseason.
“I think he has a presence in there that is a little bit different that's really effective for what we do. I think he's going to function really well in this system,” Knowles said. “We'll be able to put him places that fit his skills. … Potential? Absolutely. He has potential, we got to go out there and prove it.”
Williams’ size alone makes him an intriguing piece for the Buckeye defense. At 6-foot-3, 315 pounds – down 45 pounds from when he arrived at Ohio State a year ago – Williams is the biggest tackle on the Buckeye roster. Knowles didn’t recruit Williams, and he typically doesn’t target tackles solely for size on the recruiting trail. But he’s certainly grateful to count a player with both Williams’ physical makeup and potential among his brightest young talents.
“It changes everything, right? Because now you can always count on the double team so you can program, 'OK, they're gonna have to double team this guy,' and now you can program someone else to be free because you know, they're going to have to commit too,” Knowles said. “And when you can find that, it's great for all the surrounding areas of the defense.
“I have been less of size and space-eat, more than just really first step and quickness and attacking mentality. So those guys are always hard to find. But I think I always have erred to the side of being more aggressive. Kinda like Mike (Hall), I mean I thought he did some great things for us. He gets off the ball fast and to me, that creates as much problems as some dude who's just sitting in there at 350 and can't be moved.”
Hall, another second-year tackle for the Buckeyes, was the No. 53 prospect in the country in 2021 and should be more of a factor in the rotation in the middle this year. Ohio State also has the services of third-year tackle Ty Hamilton at its disposal. Hamilton had just 12 tackles last year, but he got home for two sacks and could be in line for a breakout season in 2022.
The Buckeyes have to tighten up in the middle if they hope to make a run for championship hardware in 2022, but entering the summer, Knowles seems optimistic about the unit’s chances to do so this year.