Mitchell Melton “Might Be A Surprise” For Ohio State in 2023 As Buckeye Coaches Believe He Can Make Impact at Jack Position

By Griffin Strom on July 6, 2023 at 8:35 am
Mitchell Melton

Ohio State held off on developing its Jack package this spring and Jim Knowles cited one player in particular as a primary reason why.

Ever since taking over the Buckeye defense, Knowles has raved about the potential for Mitchell Melton to emerge as a difference-maker in his hybrid linebacker/defensive end position. The four-star Maryland product began his college career in the middle of the defense before moving up to the line of scrimmage, and his ability at both levels makes him an ideal candidate for a spot where he can take on different roles from play to play.

But just as Melton was building momentum in the spring of 2022, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear. At the start of this past spring, Knowles didn’t want to delve deeper into the nuances of the Jack package without having perhaps his top choice at the position available to experiment with.

As preseason camp approaches, though, Melton appears to be back in the mix. And although Melton has sparsely been seen on the field thus far in his Buckeye career, the Ohio State coaching staff believes his return is far more than a footnote ahead of the 2023 campaign.

“(He's doing) really well. He's 100% now, he's working out, He's running,” Larry Johnson said in May. “And he might be a surprise. He might be a surprise. I'm really looking forward to him. He's really hungry. He can't wait. We held him out in the spring for a reason. He walked out there for spring ball and he said, 'Thanks, Coach.' I said, ‘We need you to be healthy in August. I don't need to see what you can do in the (spring).’ And I think that really helped him mentally, because he knew he wasn't quite ready. He did the individual road, we just kept him out of all the team stuff. And I think that really helped him get ready mentally.”

It’s not as though Melton will return to action as a proven commodity for the Buckeyes. In fact, he hasn’t even taken an official defensive snap for Ohio State. During his COVID-shortened freshman season in 2020, Melton only appeared on special teams. Then ahead of the 2021 slate, Melton suffered a season-ending injury that preceded his more recent ailment.

Between his major injuries, Melton’s shown enough for Knowles and Johnson to carry continued confidence in his talent. But before that confidence can turn into a regular role on the field, he’ll have to prove he can both maintain his health and return to the form he showed two springs ago.

“I want to see him back to where he was. We moved him from linebacker to the front when I got here, and then started experimenting with him in the Jack position,” Knowles said. “And he jumped out. He jumped out, he really did, to Coach Johnson and to me in things that he did. So I just want to see him back there. I want to see, OK, has he recovered completely? Is he healthy?”

Given all the time he’s spent on the sidelines, it’s easy to wonder what Melton’s done to imbue his coaches with so much faith in his ability. One would imagine a larger sample size would be required for Ohio State’s coaches to speak as highly as they have about his potential impact on the heels of back-to-back season-ending injuries.

If you ask Johnson, Melton’s displayed all the right intangibles behind the scenes, where he’s had a much longer look at the 6-foot-3, 253-pound defender than the general public.

“He's a great pass rusher. You guys haven't seen it very much, but he can rush the passer. He's tough, he's fast, he can play relentless,” Johnson said. “All the good things you wanna have guys playing, Mitchell Melton is that. Some guys come here knowing how to play hard. Some guys you gotta teach them how to play hard. Because playing hard is a skill. It's not something that you acquire unless you know how to do it all the time, right? And so you'll find that most young guys come in and think they're playing fast, but they're not playing fast until you watch the tape. Mitch plays fast, and that's what you want, so I'm looking forward to seeing him.

"He might be a surprise. I'm really looking forward to him. He's really hungry. He can't wait."– Larry Johnson on Mitchell Melton

“We've seen him more than you guys have seen him. We've seen him more. We've seen him in practice. We've seen what he can do before he got hurt. He did some really good things rushing from a defensive end position last spring before he got hurt. And you saw some good moments, and be like, 'Wow.'”

With Melton injured, Knowles primarily turned to Jack Sawyer to play the Jack in 2022, and to mostly mixed results. But Sawyer is now focused solely on defensive end duties, which means there is plenty of opportunity for a player like Melton to slot into the role.

However, he figures to face competition from five-star linebacker C.J. Hicks, who Knowles is looking to get on the field in one form or another this season after playing special teams only as a freshman.

“We'll 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. “He was a linebacker, D-line, I think he's got a great combination. 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 package.”

If the Jack position continues to have limited impact, Knowles won’t force it. He said “nothing is non-negotiable” at Ohio State, and that his end goal is to “get a defense that wins.” But Knowles will continue to experiment with the Jack in the meantime and hopes it “catches fire” with either Melton or Hicks leading the way.

Should Melton gain ground in the preseason, the Buckeyes may just have their perfect match at Jack in Knowles’ second year.

“We're hoping he can make an impact for us this year,” Ryan Day said this spring. “Before the injury, we were excited about him, what he was doing. So he's got really good pass rush ability and really good strength and play speed. So we just got to be smart and make sure we're bringing him back the right way.”

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