A five-star recruit with three years of college experience and 14 starts under his belt at USC, Palaie Gaoteote seemed like a transfer who could produce right away for Ohio State.
Injuries, an ineligibility issue and the state of flux in the Buckeyes’ defensive scheme have all hindered that pursuit for the fifth-year linebacker since joining the program last summer. Gaoteote played in eight games during his first season at Ohio State but never saw more than 19 snaps in any of those appearances and finished with just nine total tackles on the year.
Not exactly threatening for a starting job in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ base 4-2-5 alignment, Gaoteote’s potential role still seems unclear with the 2022 season rapidly approaching – even from his perspective.
“To be honest, that's a question for Coach Knowles,” Gaoteote said last week after the Buckeyes’ fifth preseason practice. “I think I'm pretty smart and I can pick up things really fast. So the more that they're throwing at me, I just kind of try to be a sponge and just receive it and just try to play as fast as I can.”
But Knowles is still trying to figure that out as he continues to assess his first Buckeye roster and position room. The top of the depth chart seems to be set at Ohio State’s two starting inside linebacker spots, but how the rest of the rotation comes together still appears to be a question mark.
Devising a clear-cut pecking order is only made more difficult by the litany of names vying for time at the two positions that are likely to see the lion’s share of snaps at linebacker in Knowles’ system.
“Tommy (Eichenberg) and Steele (Chambers) have been really solidifying things at linebacker,” Knowles said last week. “I like Cody (Simon) and Teradja (Mitchell) mixing in and Chip (Trayanum) and C.J. (Hicks). And EA’s been kind of a float-around guy for us. I feel like we have potential there for depth, but still developing.”
During Ohio State’s open practice this past Thursday, most of Gaoteote’s reps came with the third-string Buckeye defense. Gaoteote said he’s spending most of his time at the Will position, but he’s been mentioned as a candidate to see time at multiple other – potentially lesser-used – positions as well.
“I’m just kind of floating around the room, playing different spots,” Gaoteote said. “For the most part just playing around at different spots and just trying to be flexible in my position. … Right now it's Will, but for the most part it's kind of wherever they put me. Whether it's Jack or Sam, it depends on them and if they call my number and tell me what spot, I'll just be ready for it.”
Much of the time in 2021, Gaoteote was used situationally as a Sam linebacker during short-yardage third-down situations or in goal-line packages. Knowles teased earlier in the offseason that the Buckeyes could use the Sam more regularly when facing run-heavy offenses like Wisconsin, who the Buckeyes face on Sept. 24. Last week, though, Knowles said the versatility of Ohio State safeties Kourt Williams and Lathan Ransom might negate the use of a third linebacker.
Even so, Gaoteote could still see time at yet another position. The Jack position, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, has been a hallmark of Knowles’ defenses in previous stops at Oklahoma State and Duke. Underclassman defensive ends Jack Sawyer and Caden Curry are two top candidates to fill that spot, but at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, Gaoteote gives Knowles a different body type to use at Jack.
And then from the linebacker position, EA, we want to try to find a role for him,” Knowles said during the spring. “So we had EA involved in that Jack position, then also in a Sam position which we’ll sometimes utilize against teams when they play two tight ends, which our offense does a little bit. So we’ve gotten EA in there.”
“I've been really happy here, I haven't regretted it once since I've been here. So everything's going great.”– Palaie Gaoteote on transferring out of USC
An overlooked aspect of Gaotete’s transition is the lack of coaching continuity he’s had thus far. Now on his fourth different defensive coordinator in a five-year college career, Gaoteote is tasked with learning what might be the most complex system he’s played in to date.
Despite the challenge, Gaoteote seems to be a firm believer in Knowles’ leadership.
“Definitely when you got a new defensive scheme coming in, it's gonna take quite a while for you to get adjusted and know the assignment sound,” Gaoteote said. “But for the most part since Coach Knowles has been here, everything has been kind of like attention to detail. And at the end of the day, just run to the ball and being a football player.
“I mean, it's kind of been like that my whole college career. Before I left USC I had two different defensive coordinators. Then I come to Ohio State, I have one and then the next year I have another. So I was always on the run trying to learn new playbooks and haven't really been in a solid foundation. But with Coach Knowles I know that it's going to be solid for a long time. So really just investing in it and putting everything I got.”
For those with sky-high expectations for Gaoteote’s immediate impact on the Buckeyes, his 2021 season was likely a disappointment. That may be the case for Gaoteote himself, whether he would openly admit it or not. But even if everything hasn’t gone exactly according to plan, Gaoteote isn't second-guessing his move to Columbus.
“A lot of things went into it. I kind of felt like I just needed a new chapter in my life and just coming to a great university like Ohio State,” Gaoteote said. “I've been really happy here, I haven't regretted it once since I've been here. So everything's going great.”
Unavailable for the spring game due to injury, Gaoteote said he’s “feeling 100%" health-wise this preseason. Although his role on the Buckeye defense remains a question heading into the season opener, Gaoteote believes there are fewer obstacles between him and a productive campaign as he starts his second year in scarlet and gray.
“Even despite being ineligible, I was still all in with the team. But not having to deal with that this year, it kind of just allows me to just be full speed and just be a part of the team, be in it, like submerge myself into everything,” Gaoteote said. “So it's been a good process.”