Ohio State’s top two edge rushers are well-established entering 2023.
With Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste out of the picture, JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer will no longer be viewed as young upstarts as they enter their third year in the program. The pair of five-star talents have been given the reins at defensive end, and they’ll be expected to lead the unit and produce on the field accordingly.
But behind Tuimoloau and Sawyer, things are a bit less settled. Aside from those two, no returning Buckeye defensive end logged more than a half sack in 2022. And given Larry Johnson’s propensity to rotate players frequently along the defensive line, he needs some of his young pass rushers to step up this season.
“That's what we have to build. I think we have to build some depth. I think that's the key going into spring, build some depth,” Johnson said Thursday. “I feel pretty good about the inside guys. I think we got some strong depth there. And now we got to build the end position. We've had that in the past, and not the first time we gotta go build that again. So I'm looking forward to seeing what happens the next 14 days, where we finish.”
Perhaps no reserve DE has more pressure to emerge than Caden Curry, who Johnson pegged as a second-team defender even before the spring. The four-star Indiana prospect played the most snaps of any returning defensive end other than Tuimoloau and Sawyer last season with 78 but didn’t see more than four reps in any single game over the final six contests.
Johnson said that will have to change in Curry’s second season, mainly out of necessity.
“He's got to come on the field and play for us. He's got to play. He knows that,” Johnson said. “It's that time, right? When you get to this point in the game, you got to play. It's all there, so now he's just got to play more football. And he's doing a good job right now for us, and looking forward to see how it goes.”
Even in limited opportunities on defense last season, and mostly at the end of blowout wins for the Buckeyes, Curry flashed. Johnson was impressed by the effort Curry played with and thinks that will translate into production during more important moments this season.
“I thought every time he went in a game, he made a play. And I always said about Caden, you watch him play in high school, he just made plays, man,” Johnson said. “Somehow he found the football. And when we put them in the game and in the last half of the game, 'Caden Curry, Caden Curry.' That's what he is, and that's what we're looking for. He plays hard, and that's what I love about him.”
Ryan Day said earlier this spring he thought Curry hit a plateau midway through this past season, which might have stopped him from seeing increased playing time at defensive end down the stretch. Curry remained a fixture on special teams throughout the year, logging the third-most special teams snaps of any player on the team, but Johnson has bigger assignments in mind for the sophomore this year.
“He was doing special teams. And then we were in a situation that we were probably playing the older guys a little bit more,” Johnson said. “We want to keep the guys on the field, so he wasn't a factor for us going down the stretch. But he played a lot of special teams, and that was his gig. Now it's time to play football. And I think he's ready to do that.”
But Curry is just one of three second-year defensive ends searching to capitalize on an increase in opportunity in 2023. The other two – Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor – both held higher recruiting rankings in the 2022 class.
Jackson, listed at 6-foot-5, 252 pounds, was Ohio State’s third-highest-rated defensive recruit last year behind only five-star talents C.J. Hicks and Sonny Styles. He only appeared in three games on defense for Ohio State as a true freshman and finished with just 24 snaps for the season, but that number should increase in 2023.
“When you're on the scout team, you can play at a slower pace. Now you're with the big boys for the first time going against the ones and twos. Now that speed's got to pick up."– Larry Johnson on Kenyatta Jackson
Johnson said adjusting to the speed of the game at the highest level of college football will be the biggest step for the top 60 prospect.
“He's got a lot of potential. So now it's just learning how to play the game at maximum speed, if that makes sense. So that's the problem,” Johnson said. “When you're on the scout team, you can play at a slower pace. Now you're with the big boys for the first time going against the ones and twos. Now that speed's got to pick up. So it's a learning process. Everything's a process. And hopefully spring ball will get that out of him, he'll have a chance to really show himself. But he's got talent.”
Despite being an underclassman, Tuimoloau said Jackson actually keeps him on his toes and pushes him to improve on the practice field.
“Kenyatta is a very talented one. He's also another guy that, we all push each other, but he's also a young guy that pushes me, that asks me questions but also teaching me things about myself that I can use from him,” Tuimoloau said. “And he's gonna be a talented one, and we just got to keep going.”
Abor was only three spots behind Jackson in the 247Sports composite rankings, but he saw even fewer opportunities as a true freshman due to a knee injury that kept him out of all but one game in 2022. But after packing on 28 pounds over the past year, the 6-foot-3 pass rusher appears to be taking strides this offseason.
“Omari (is talented) too. I like Omari, I think Omari is really starting to move forward,” Johnson siad. “He's 265 now and so I like the way those two guys are starting to play. He missed a lot of football, it was just the fundamental part. It's the technique stuff that you miss and the conditioning part, because he wasn't doing the real football stuff. So now it's playing catch up. But I like where he's at right now. He's starting to really turn the corner and that's what I'll wait and see.”
Ty Hamilton says the work ethic of Abor and the other young Buckeye linemen has caught his eye so far, but that will have to continue to be the case if Johnson expects to put another deep stable of outside rushers on the field come fall.
“I feel like it's just hard work. I mean, everyone's gonna have technique and stuff like that, but it all comes down to how hard you want to work,” Hamilton said. “And I feel like that's where Omari, all the young guys, all the freshmen and even the older guys, it's just working hard. They're working hard every time, competing. We're together, so that's just us working hard.”