Jack Sawyer saw the field nearly twice as much in 2022 as he did as a true freshman. But not all of those snaps came at the traditional defensive end position he was recruited to Ohio State to play.
The implementation of Jim Knowles’ hybrid defensive end/linebacker position was oft-discussed in the leadup to his first season as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator. With Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste still in the mix as veteran defensive ends, the Jack position seemed aptly designed – and named – for Sawyer to showcase an array of athletic abilities for the Buckeyes.
Sawyer spent plenty of time in the role, but the Jack spot never seemed to jump off the field in the game-changing manner that Knowles would’ve hoped. Following the departure of Harrison and Jean-Baptiste, Ohio State has questions to answer regarding who will take their snaps at DE, and who may be best served playing Jack.
As far as Sawyer’s concerned, defensive line coach Larry Johnson just wants to see him stay put in one role or the other.
“We're gonna try to slow that down a little bit. Get him in a position where he can go honing his skills,” Johnson said Wednesday. “If that means Jack or playing regular defensive end, I think we got to make that decision and go for it. I think we'll do a little bit in the spring, just try to get him a home and let him go play.”
Sawyer was productive as a sophomore. His 4.5 sacks were tied for the team lead, and his 6.5 tackles for loss ranked fifth among Buckeyes. Still, it wasn’t the earth-shattering breakout campaign that many fans hoped for, whether he was at Jack or defensive end.
Had Sawyer truly excelled at Jack, perhaps he’d be a fixture in the role moving forward. As things stand, the Buckeyes are still looking for someone to stick at that spot in 2023 and beyond.
“He plays it. Guys kind of did multiple things. There wasn’t just one true Jack position,” Knowles said. “We're not there yet. That's why we call it a Leo when you don't have to bring on new personnel or whatever. It's just this guy can do everything. And now that they know it, I think hopefully we can move more towards that.”
Johnson didn’t deny that he wants to see Sawyer fully develop as a traditional defensive end by the end of his Ohio State career, but said every option is on the table as of now. But in order for Sawyer to make the most of his talent, Johnson thinks staying put in one spot would be more beneficial than splitting time in practice.
“That's long-term. I can say that right now, yes I would like to see (Sawyer’s full development at DE) happen,” Johnson said. “I think we have to work to the progress of that, we've got to find out who's gonna be our Jacks and our Leo guy, who that's gonna be and what's the best fit. But I think that as we move that direction, I think there's some things we've got to take a look at, hard look at where we want him to play.”
Johnson believes Sawyer hasn’t yet maxed out his potential, which is why he’d likely prefer to have the five-star prospect as a full-time pass rusher in his unit. However, that same athletic potential helped make him an intriguing candidate for the Jack position in the first place.
“I think he's got a lot left on the plate for him to develop and go for it. And I think what I'm seeing thus far, you can see that he's got the fire in his belly to really know where he's gotta go to get to be a great player,” Johnson said. “He's there. He's just now doing it all the time. And I like the fact that he's in that moment, he's in that thought process like, 'OK, here's where I'm going, here's where I'm at.' And so that's pretty cool.”
Sawyer isn’t the only Buckeye Johnson would rather see stick to one position in 2023. Another name on the shortlist to play Jack ahead of 2022, Caden Curry flashed both at defensive end and on special teams as a true freshman. The Indiana native was credited with 14 total tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack, and he appeared in every game.
“Caden will go into the offseason at number two on the depth chart at defensive end. I don't want to move him.”– Larry Johnson on Caden Curry
Curry saw 78 snaps on defense, but Johnson seems intent on upping that number significantly in 2023. And the 10-year Ohio State assistant doesn’t want him splitting time at Jack.
“Caden will go into the offseason at number two on the depth chart at defensive end. I don't want to move him,” Johnson said. “I want him to learn how to play that position and play it well. And so I think he's got a good chance to really be a factor for us now as he settles in going into the second year.”
Asked about the hybrid role in his interview session, Johnson pointed out the Jack doesn’t have to be a defensive end. It just so happened that most of the Jack reps in 2022 went to members of Johnson’s position room.
“It can come from the linebacker position,” Johnson said. “That's what I'm saying, it's hard to say exactly what is going to happen right now because we haven't sat down and said, ‘Here's what we're gonna do.’ But it doesn't have to be from the defensive end position, it could come from the linebacker position.”
Luckily for the Buckeye defense, there are more than a couple options for the Jack position. However, Knowles didn’t mention any pure linebackers when discussing the Jack on Wednesday.
Linebacker-turned-defensive end Mitchell Melton appeared to be a promising candidate for the position last offseason but suffered a season-ending knee injury in the spring game. Once he gets healthy, he could be in the mix again.
Knowles also said Buckeye defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau could spend more time playing a hybrid role in 2023 if the coaching staff so chooses.
“Any addition we get there out of Mitchell just allows us more flexibility. I mean, JT is a guy who can do anything. You want to get him into certain matchups,” Knowles said. “So this system, there's a lot that we haven't done. But JT can do some, he can do whatever we decide we want him to do. But the more moving parts we have then the better off we are.”
There may be some push and pull as far as personnel at Jack this offseason, but Ohio State has the depth and talent to make it work in one way or another.
“We got a lot of parts, but that's the good thing about spring, you get time to figure that out,” Knowles said.