It's not exactly a secret: Ohio State's defensive line is loaded.
That's typically true of any Larry Johnson unit, but perhaps even more so entering the 2022 season. The topic was discussed at length by Johnson and every Buckeye defensive lineman available for interviews after Ohio State’s 11th preseason practice Tuesday, and if you don't believe them, just take a glance at the roster.
The Buckeyes return starters from last season – some more occasional than others – in Zach Harrison, Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage and Javontae Jean-Baptiste. The young talent may be even more exciting, as Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall all enter their second seasons with designs on making more of an impact than they did in 2021. That’s to say nothing of first-year players Caden Curry, Hero Kanu, Omari Abor and Kenyatta Jackson, who all have bright futures of their own.
Oh, and don't forget about surging defensive tackle Ty Hamilton or team captain Tyler Friday, who returns at defensive end after missing all of last season with injury.
Exactly how deep will the rotation be once the Buckeyes take the field to start the season? Johnson said it will reach well over double-digits.
“If I'm lucky, I can play 12. If I'm lucky,” Johnson said Tuesday. “Normally we play anywhere between 10 to 11. But you know, we could get to 12 to play for us. … so we got a chance. And it depends how the game plays and what we're playing, what packs we're playing – all that stuff plays a role in what we're doing.”
Ohio State’s past two defensive lines were also deep. That didn’t always result in big numbers for the unit. In the eight-game 2020 season, no Buckeye had more than 3.5 sacks or five tackles for loss. Last season, just 5.5 sacks was a team-leading figure, and no Ohio State player had more than seven tackles for loss.
“In every group you got to have an alpha dog, right? In every group. So we gotta have that one guy committed to be able to do that. So I think it's important. I think we have that guy.”– Larry Johnson
Just because the group is deep doesn’t mean it can’t have one dominant force, though. No Buckeye should be expected to approach Chase Young’s record-setting 2019 campaign, which saw the Ohio State pass rusher rack up 16.5 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. But Johnson believes the unit will have a figurehead by the end of the season nonetheless.
He’s just not ready to definitively name who that will be quite yet.
“In every group you got to have an alpha dog, right? In every group. So we gotta have that one guy committed to be able to do that,” Johnson said. “So I think it's important. I think we have that guy. … No, I can't name him yet. Come on, you can't name an alpha dog. That's something you got to see and watch.”
The depth of the group makes identifying who that top dog might be all the more difficult. There’s little doubt Tuimoloau and Sawyer are among the top candidates, given the promise they’ve shown as not only five-star talents, but top-five overall players in the country coming out of high school. Tuimoloau was third on the team with 3.5 sacks as a true freshman a season ago, and Sawyer wasn’t far off with three of his own.
Tuimoloau hardly had time to transition to the top level of college football ahead of last season, as he didn't make a commitment decision until July 2021. Between the flashes he displayed in the spring and the way the Buckeye coaching staff has talked about him since then, Tuimoloau might be primed for a breakout season.
Sawyer's potential is just as interesting, given his presumptive role as the No. 1 player on the depth chart at Jim Knowles’ Jack position – a hybrid (and aptly named) defensive end/linebacker spot at which he could split time with his more traditional pass rushing duties. Johnson said he doesn’t oversee the Jack position during practice, but Sawyer may be even more productive with the freedom he’ll be afforded in that role.
The way Johnson sees it, the “alpha” could be one of a few different players in his position room.
“You got to have a little bit of dog in you when you get here, right? You got to have a little attitude when you get here. You want to be relentless in what you do,” Johnson said. “And that guy is the guy that kind of leads the pack. We have a couple of guys who can do that, and that's what's been really fun. The energy and the spirit in practice has been off the charts – better than it's ever been since I've been here. The guys really enjoy themselves, they love practicing, they love playing. And I think that's good, I really do.”
As much as Johnson hopes someone steps up to be the face of Ohio State’s 2022 defensive line, he knows the overall depth remains its biggest strength. The line has earned no shortage of praise from coaches like Knowles and Kevin Wilson in the past couple weeks, and that has a lot to do with the ability of Johnson’s line to rapidly rotate fresh legs onto the field.
Perhaps a loaded group spearheaded by one true star will yield the best results up front for the Buckeye defense in the past several years.
“You look at the wolves, when a wolf traveled alone, he's got a chance to not be successful. When they traveled in packs, that's when they get to be successful,” Johnson said. “I hate to use that analogy, but that's what it is. So I'm teaching this, 'Let's travel in a pack,' because when you travel in a pack, everybody gets credit, right? And that's what we're selling.
“There's gonna be some guys that are gonna step up, maybe some young players step up. But at the end of the day, it has to be the unit that steps up. We may have a guy that may do this great thing, but without those other three guys, it doesn't happen.”