For one late-October afternoon in Happy Valley, JT Tuimoloau looked like the most dominant defensive force in college football.
Even in a video game, the second-year Ohio State defensive end’s statline might have been difficult to believe. Two sacks, two interceptions – one returned for a touchdown – a forced fumble and fumble recovery, a batted-down pass and three tackles for loss. And those numbers didn’t come in the second half of a blowout against a lower-tier opponent.
The Buckeyes needed every contribution Tuimoloau gave them. Ohio State trailed Penn State by five points with 9:26 left in the fourth quarter and had mustered one touchdown all game through the first three quarters of action. Thanks in large part to the five-star pass rusher, the Buckeyes exploded for 28 points thereafter to secure a 13-point come-from-behind win on the road over a Big Ten East Division rival.
“It's all kind of a blur the way it happened. But to intercept balls like that as a defensive end and go get a defensive score, I don't know if I've ever seen that before,” Ryan Day said after the game. “That's big time. J.T.T. has put so much hard work into this. He's an unbelievable player, but he's a better person. And you can see his talent. This is kind of his coming-out party today. And he's been working at it. Nobody wants it more than he does. So in this stage, for him to play the way he did, it means a lot to him and I think his teammates are very proud of him.”
No one expected Tuimoloau to replicate a single-game performance that great for the rest of the season, but his exploits at State College figured to raise Tuimoloau’s caliber of play down the stretch in 2023. Well, not exactly. Tuimoloau racked up four more total tackles in the five games after Penn State than he had in the seven games prior, but only recorded one more sack all season after the matchup with the Nittany Lions.
So while he put his superstar potential on full display at Penn State, it still feels like there’s a level Tuimoloau hasn’t quite tapped into – one where a dominant, game-wrecking performance comes on a more consistent basis.
Now entering Tuimoloau’s third year at Ohio State, and perhaps his last in college football, Buckeye defensive line coach Larry Johnson hopes to unlock that ability in 2023. And he doesn’t think Tuimoloau needs any wholesale reformations to get there.
“Like I always say, first block the noise. Just concentrate on who you are. Don't worry about all the other things outside,” Johnson said in March. “Just concentrate on your technique and just keep getting better. And again, I say this all the time; it's not the big things, it's the little things that you get better as a player. And that's what we work on, it's all the little things. Where you step, his hand placement, eye discipline, all those things are important to become an elite player. He has the talent and skill set, so how can we make him better? Well, that's my job. I got to find those little things to make him better.”
Tuimoloau may not have reached his final form this spring, but he was undeniably impressive in the early offseason. He only played 10 snaps during the spring game, but during multiple practice and scrimmage sessions at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center before that, Tuimoloau frequently terrorized Ohio State’s retooled first-team offensive line and starting quarterback hopefuls Kyle McCord and Devin Brown.
During the Buckeyes’ Student Appreciation Day scrimmage in particular, Tuimoloau was arguably the most impactful defender on the roster. The Washington native was credited with three sacks as Johnson’s front line ran roughshod on Justin Frye’s group for much of the day, spearheading the defense to a win over the offense in a modified scoring system.
But even Tuimoloau knows he can clean up his skill set to take another leap, and his thoughts on how to do so echo Johnson’s own.
“Staying consistent, I feel like with me, I always have room for improvement. No matter if it's good or bad. I always want myself to grow, just stay trusting Coach J, trusting the unit and just having fun with everybody. … Just stay consistent with all the little things, like Coach (Jim) Knowles is teaching us. So that's one thing I want to push on myself is just pay attention to the small details and all the little things that can make a difference. Little things matter, and that's one thing I want to focus on. Just eye discipline, everything like that. Meeting with Coach J every day and just have him talk to me and just teach me the things he wants me to work on and just going from there.”
In terms of playing time, Tuimoloau was already Johnson’s top defensive end a year ago. His 504 snaps were 19 more than any other player at the position on the Buckeye roster. But with Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste (who logged a combined 734 snaps in 2022) now gone from the program, he’ll have to shoulder an even bigger load when it comes to production.
Hopes are still high for fellow five-star talent Jack Sawyer, who will line up alongside Tuimoloau as the Buckeyes’ other starting defensive end in 2023. But neither Sawyer nor any of the other young edge rushers on the roster have proven what Tuimoloau did in one single performance last season.
Knowing what Tuimoloau is capable of only heightens expectations for his 2023 campaign. And in pursuit of both increased team success and first-round draft selection status, he’ll need to show glimpses of greatness with more regularity in the season to come.