Jack Sawyer’s days of playing his namesake position at Ohio State appear to be over.
After splitting snaps between playing as a traditional defensive end and lining up as a Jack linebacker last season, Sawyer is focusing fully on playing defensive end this spring. Everyone involved in that decision – defensive line coach Larry Johnson, defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and Sawyer himself – agrees that’s the best thing for Sawyer based on how this spring has gone so far.
“Jack is getting better every day,” Knowles said Tuesday. “I think that move and staying out of that package this spring has been really good for Jack. He gets to focus on the fundamentals with Coach Johnson, and I really like his progress.”
Johnson thinks it was worth seeing what Sawyer could do at the Jack position last year. After it became clear that position didn’t allow Sawyer to play to his biggest strengths as a pass rusher, however, he felt the Buckeyes needed to move in a different direction this year.
“I thought just evaluating it, just conversation with coaches, said ‘Hey, I think it's best for Jack to go back to the line of scrimmage. And I think we got another guy that can probably play the Jack and let him put his hand in the ground, let him go rush,’” Johnson said last week. “That's why we brought him here to do that. And I thought that it (playing Jack) was a good experiment, but now let's go play football. And I think that's the best position for him. He feels happy where he's at. And that's important too.”
Sawyer also said he has no regrets about playing Jack last season, saying he wanted to do anything he could to help the team. But he’s happy to be back at his natural position now.
“I'm just excited to get back to playing defensive end where I feel at home,” Sawyer said last week. “I like coming off the ball with my hand on the ground more than standing up.”
When Sawyer looks back on last season, when he recorded 24 total tackles with 6.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, he admits he did not perform up to his expectations. But he says that’s true of Ohio State’s entire defensive line.
“I'd probably be lying if I told you it was what I expected. I think a lot of us would say that, really, when you look at the season. When you look at how many plays we missed, and how many opportunities we had to get a sack or to get a tackle for loss,” Sawyer said. “So I think collectively, we're looking forward to finishing those plays off this year. And getting the sack number up as a whole way through the roof than it was last year.”
Sawyer said “it was kind of a lot with the plays” to have to balance playing both defensive end and Jack last year. Now that he’ll be focusing on playing just one position, Sawyer feels like he can hone in on improving his technique as a defensive end, which Johnson thinks will make a difference on the field this fall.
“The Jack is standing off the line, so he's coming off the edge or he's on the other side. Defensive line guy, you’re down in the ground, you’re fitting every single time. So it's kind of different things that we're doing, right? You love to see he can do both, but it's tough to do that, unless you got one guy that can do it all the time,” Johnson said. “So I don't think it set him behind, it’s just different, for the first time going into a new defense, playing that position. So I think we’ve evolved from that point on.”
Although Sawyer is athletic enough to drop back into coverage and play in space, Johnson thinks that takes him away from what he does best.
“His best trait is to go put his hand in the ground and go rush as a defensive end. He's a 6-5, 265-pound guy coming off the edge, so we just gotta go back and refine his technique and continue to make him better,” Johnson said. “He can drop, but I think at the end of the day, you want him on the line of scrimmage rushing and playing the run.”
Outlook for Sawyer and the Jack
Ohio State needs Sawyer to excel as a defensive end this year, as he’s moving into a starting role opposite fellow top-five overall recruit JT Tuimoloau as both of them enter their third seasons as Buckeyes. That’s another reason why Sawyer won’t be playing multiple positions this year, as he’ll be expected to play a majority of the snaps at defensive end in 2023 after rotating in off the bench behind Tuimoloau and Zach Harrison in 2022.
Given their lofty recruiting statures, Ohio State fans will be expecting both Sawyer and Tuimoloau to be stars on the edges of the Buckeyes’ defense this year, and Knowles is confident that’s what they can be.
“With him on one end and JT on the other, I think we got a great pair to start out with,” Knowles said when talking about Sawyer.
Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor are also candidates to see snaps in the defensive end rotation this year, but the Buckeyes will be counting on Tuimoloau and Sawyer to lead the way.
As for the Jack position, Knowles still intends to utilize the hybrid linebacker position this fall even though the Buckeyes have focused on playing in four-down fronts this spring. But instead of using the team’s top defensive ends in that role, Knowles is looking at Mitchell Melton and C.J. Hicks as two Buckeyes who could play situationally in that package this season.
“I’m gonna bring that package back, but I'm really targeting Mitchell Melton. I was really high on him last spring until he got hurt,” Knowles said. “And come fall, I want to look at C.J., too. Because C.J. is a guy who has such great athletic ability and speed. I think if I can direct him more and not have him read as much but attack more, I think he can be a real threat too at that position. So those are two guys I want to look at for that position.”