Mike Hall was arguably Ohio State’s most productive defensive lineman last season, and that was with one healthy arm.
Hall announced his arrival with a breakout season-opening performance against Notre Dame in which the second-year defensive tackle racked up four total tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack during a 21-10 win that set the tone for the 2022 campaign. He was just as dominant the next week, but after collecting three tackles for loss and another sack in the Week 2 matchup with Arkansas State, Hall went down with a shoulder injury that held him back for the remainder of the season.
Hall missed Ohio State’s next game, only played seven snaps in the Buckeyes’ first conference road game against Michigan State and saw the field for 19 plays or fewer in each of the final five games of the year. As a result, Hall didn’t register a sack, a tackle for loss or more than two total tackles in any game after the bye week.
Even so, Hall tied Jack Sawyer for the team lead in season sacks (4.5) and led all Buckeye linemen in tackles for loss (7.5). But now healthy at the start of Ohio State’s spring schedule, Hall has designs on improving his game across the board.
“You just got to use that as energy to fuel and just come back out here and just try to get back to my normal self,” Hall said during an interview session Thursday. “Just to be out there for my guys and come out here and motivate them to be the best teammate I could be for them. … I would say I'm definitely at my greatest mindset right now on and off the field.”
The extent of Hall’s injury wasn’t highly publicized throughout the season, but the manner in which his production – and playing time – tapered off was telling. Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said Hall’s shoulder impacted him both physically and mentally, but that he’s already bounced back early in the offseason.
“I wouldn't say (the injury was) severe, but it bothered him,” Johnson said last week. “When you're playing inside and you got a shoulder injury, you can't do this. You can't lock out. So now you're playing with one arm. That's tough to do to play the run. And it affected him. There's no question about it. It affected him mentally. But now he's healthy, he's done a great job of rehabbing and making sure he's strong to go. And right now he's having a pretty good camp.”
Hall said his recovery process began as soon as the 2022 season concluded in January, and that it took “just a couple weeks” to get the rest he needed before delving into treatment and therapy with the Ohio State training staff.
“He can be special. He's got all the skill sets to be special. He's just got to stay healthy and go from there.”– Larry Johnson on Mike Hall
But Hall’s not interested in rehashing his health struggles, or really anything that took place last year. Hall said he’s already put the 2022 season behind him and is focused solely on what lies ahead in 2023.
“(I feel) great. Over the injury, it's a new year, new me,” Hall said. “So just glad to be back in action and just playing hard. … (The injury) was just something that was just ongoing with me, but we're passed that. It's onto a new year, so just glad to be out with my guys and the rushmen. … Everything last year, it just happened last year. You just got to focus on right now. You really can't focus on the stuff in the past.”
As for what Hall needs to improve after a stellar first season as a starter on the Buckeye defense, Johnson said it’s the finer details that will allow the Streetsboro, Ohio, native to take his game to the next level.
“(He needs to) just continue to get better. You know, the sky's the limit for him. He's gotta continue (working on the) small things,” Johnson said. “It's just the little things (that help) you get better, right? And that's what we gotta work on. His hand placement, eye discipline, all those things are part of him being the elite player. And that's what we're working on.”
And while Hall’s ability to blow up opponents’ passing plays may have garnered the most attention in his second season in the program, Johnson thinks he’ll be able to showcase his run-stopping skills even more this year, should he stay healthy.
“People say his pass rushing is outstanding, but his best position is playing the run,” Johnson said. “Because he's got such a great get-off on the inside, and so he can disrupt the line of scrimmage pretty quickly his first step.”
But if Hall has personal goals for his third year, he isn’t stating them publicly. Hall was tight-lipped when asked about his own individual expectations, instead choosing to champion the cause of the Ohio State defensive line as a whole.
To that end, Hall didn’t hold back in expressing his sky-high hopes for the unit’s performance.
“I'd just say just to be the best unit, try to become the best defensive line group in the country,” Hall said. “I would say we always strive for that and Coach J always preaches that and just pushing the yardstick every day and just try to be better every day. … I would say this is the most ruthless unit that's come to Ohio State, I would say. You’re just gonna have to see, I can’t say anything.”
However, Johnson was somewhat non-committal when asked if Hall was a surefire Week 1 starter for Ohio State. In the latter stages of the 2022 season, Ty Hamilton overtook Hall as the group’s starting nose tackle, although Hall’s injury issues were an obvious factor.
Perhaps the momentum Hamilton gained at the end of the year could carry over into 2023, but Johnson’s penchant for rotating his linemen suggests Hall won’t struggle to find playing time – especially with Taron Vincent and Jerron Cage moving onto the NFL.
“(Starters are) hard to say right there because you got three guys. You got Tyleik (Williams), you got Ty and you got Mike Hall. There's three guys inside, you got to find a place for them,” Johnson said. “That's my job. Where can they play, where can they be? It's great competition, and I think that's the key, but it's just too early to figure out what's gonna happen. We'll let it play itself out. But I like where we're at right now on the inside.”
If Hall proves to be as destructive as he was early last season, though, Johnson might find it difficult to take him off the field.
“He can be special. He's got all the skill sets to be special,” Johnson said. “He's just got to stay healthy and go from there.”