Kenyatta Jackson’s freshman season was a quiet one.
Despite entering the program as a top-100 overall recruit and one of the 10 best edge rusher prospects in the nation, the Hollywood, Florida, native didn’t get many opportunities to show off his talent on the field. Jackson appeared in just three games for the Buckeyes defensively, playing no more than 12 snaps in any of them and finishing the season with 24 snaps in total.
That didn’t lessen any hopes for what the 6-foot-5, 252-pound defensive end might eventually become, but in terms of Ohio State’s trio of second-year DEs, Caden Curry seemed to be the player most had pegged for a breakout spring.
Then Jackson started making noise.
For a unit that needed to round out its depth behind projected starters JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer ahead of 2023, Jackson answered the bell more definitively than any of his running mates, impressing spectators with standout moments in several scrimmages, practices and the spring game and earning praise from the Buckeye coaching staff at every turn. As a result, Jackson finds himself in position to carry a great deal of momentum into the preseason, where he can earn a meaningful role on Larry Johnson’s defensive line in just his second season of college football.
“Guys like Kenyatta Jackson stepped up, and we need more and more of those guys to do that in the D-line.”– Ryan Day
In fact, Jackson was the one name Ryan Day mentioned after the spring game when pointing to a young defensive end that did exactly what was asked of him early in the offseason.
“I think one thing that we need to make sure we're doing is building depth. I feel like we have the right people in place. In terms of starters, the first group or so, those guys have to play great. And that's important,” Day said. “As you take the next step in your progression, it's one thing to be a starter, it's another thing to be a difference-maker. I think we have quite a few guys that can be difference-makers. I think you're referring to the depth, and we like to play a lot of depth there, it's a long season. So that's an area that we got to continue to see improvement. But guys like Kenyatta Jackson stepped up, and we need more and more of those guys to do that in the D-line.”
Jackson’s spring game performance, in which he notched a sack and three total tackles, helped earn him that distinction from Day. But even if he hadn’t played in the spring game, Jackson already showed enough over the course of the preceding practice schedule for many to think he has a bright future ahead of him.
At the start of the spring, Johnson acknowledged Jackson’s high ceiling but wasn’t sure how his skill set would translate against Ohio State’s top offensive linemen given more opportunities higher up on the depth chart.
“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 in March. “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.”
All it took was Ohio State’s first spring scrimmage for Jackson to make it clear he was ready for the step up. Jackson was credited with back-to-back sacks at one point during 11-on-11 work on March 25 and might have had another one had he not been held on a play that drew a flag. Afterward, Day lauded the second-year pass rusher for his work as a frequent disruptor on the defensive line.
“We're looking for that production. I thought he put in a great year last year, put in a lot of work. He would go a lot against Paris, especially in practice,” Day said. “And they would sit down over on the bench for hours just talking. And I know what Paris was doing. He was taking him under his wing to talk about different things with offensive, defensive line play, talking technique. And so now I think you're starting to see that come of age. He had a really good offseason, he put a lot of weight on, now we're trying to see that production. It looked like he was in the backfield a lot.”
Jackson flashed again during Ohio State’s Student Appreciation Day scrimmage, in which he was credited with another sack, and he parlayed those performances into another standout showing at the spring game.
The caveat to Jackson’s stellar spring was the fact that the Buckeye offensive line, with competitions ongoing for three starting jobs, often struggled against whoever was on the field for the Ohio State defensive line. Still, Jackson was one of the chief reasons why and managed to come out of the spring schedule as one of the most impressive underclassmen on the Buckeye defense overall.
Even Tuimoloau, who enters 2023 as the top pass rusher on the Buckeye roster, said Jackson has pushed him to up his game this offseason.
“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.”
While it’s unlikely Jackson will push Tuimoloau or Sawyer for starting jobs, Johnson never relies solely on his top two defensive ends. In 2022, four different edge rushers played at least 249 snaps, and two of those players – Zach Harrison (485 snaps) and Javontae Jean-Baptiste (249) – are no longer in the program.
Their absence should leave plenty of opportunities for multiple defensive ends to step into significant roles behind the two starters in 2023. If Jackson’s preseason camp resembles his performance during the spring, he could be the top name on that list.