Ohio State Defensive Line Coach Larry Johnson Says Jason Moore Making a “Jump,” Hero Kanu and Kayden McDonald Preparing to Contribute at Defensive Tackle

By Andy Anders on March 29, 2024 at 8:35 am
Jason Moore

There’s an argument that no position will be more important to rotate during the 16 or 17 games required to win a National Championship under the expanded College Football Playoff than the defensive line.

The trenches are where the biggest bodies on a football field collide with each other every play. Conventional wisdom dictates – with good reason – that chemistry along the offensive line is too important to rotate players there.

That leaves the defensive line as the position that arguably needs the most depth to make a national title run.

“They (the backups) have gotta be able to come in and play 25, 35 plays a game and do it early in the season,” Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson said on Tuesday. “That’s the plan, get those guys ready for the long haul. And so they’ve gotta play early, they’ve gotta play often. ... They’re taking a lot of (first-team) reps (in practice).”

While backup defensive ends Kenyatta Jackson Jr. and Caden Curry each played at least 166 snaps in 2023, combining for three sacks, the assets of Ohio State’s defensive tackle position are a bit more unproven. The Buckeyes primarily featured a three-man rotation of Tyleik Williams, Mike Hall and Ty Hamilton on the inside last year.

Hall is now off to the NFL draft leaving Hamilton and Williams as starters, but none of the options behind them played at least 100 snaps last year. That’s why the development of Hero Kanu, Kayden McDonald and Jason Moore will be critical to the sustained success of the defensive interior in 2024. 

“For the inside guys, I feel pretty good,” Johnson said. “Some guys are challenging for positions. Jason Moore is starting to make a push. You’ve got Hero Kanu inside and then you’ve got K-Mac. ... Right now, it’s really just pushing the young guys more than I’m pushing the older guys. We’re kind of shutting them down a little bit and letting these young guys get some work against the ones, twos so they get ready.”

None of those names listed above drew higher praise from Johnson than Moore. A true freshman last season, he played just three snaps, all against Western Kentucky in Week 3. But it’s clear he’s elevated his play this spring.

“He’s 6-5. He’s (305) pounds. He’s the ideal three-technique in our system,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of him having confidence and playing. Sometimes you get here, it’s bigger than you think it is. It can kind of set you back. Now, in the spring, we’re challenging him and that’s what I’m telling him. Every day is a good day for Jason Moore. ... There’s a lot of guys doing well, we really like what’s going on right now. But the guy that’s making a jump is Jason Moore.”

"He’s the ideal three-technique in our system. ... The guy that's making a jump is Jason Moore."– Larry Johnson on Jason Moore

While Moore doesn’t know his exact wingspan, he’s confident it’s one of the longest on the team, with arms that dangle down close to his knees. It’s almost certainly the longest among Ohio State’s defensive tackles, typically more compact athletes to deal with the brute strength of interior offensive linemen.

Longer arms can help with stacking and shedding blocks, changing the line of scrimmage and pass rush moves, though. Those are all core elements of defensive line play.

“Of course, my size is a factor,” Moore said. “My length – it’s kind of unreal to see a guy my size at three-tech, especially my arm length. There’s so many tools that you can (use) to be the best person on the field. ... Just coming off the ball, being able to create space, make that penetration. Being able to build off of that, so many different moves, different skills you can do.”

Kanu produced the most of Ohio State’s returning defensive tackles and is probably the most versatile of the bunch, a candidate to play either three-technique or nose guard. It took him just 90 snaps to rack up 10 tackles and one sack in 2023. That sack came in Week 1 at Indiana.

“I think that it’s a big part of it, just getting more reps and more game reps overall,” Kanu said. “Just like, ‘Hey, put Hero in.’ I’m going on the field and then the first game I made a play. That’s what it’s all about. Then that gives you confidence, it gives you experience and I think all that contributed (to my play).”

Kanu added that it’s about drilling down on the finer points of his position now that he’s progressed past some of the rawer stages in his development. Only moving to America from Germany before his senior of high school, his progression started later than many of his teammates.

McDonald’s journey through Georgia high school football may have been a bit more traditional, but his skill set is one unique to Ohio State in recent years. Standing 6-3 and carrying 326 pounds, his combination of size and explosive first step could make him a battering ram of a nose guard. While he didn’t see the field on defense last year as a freshman, he played three snaps at fullback in the Cotton Bowl for the Buckeyes.

“He’s a nose guard and he’s powerful,” Johnson said. “We would like to see him continue to bring his weight down, but he’s a big man. He’s very strong and he can handle the center really well. And he gives the ideal nose guard. That’s what we’re looking for. That explosive guy, big guy in the middle.”

McDonald has shown more intent in his approach to practice and film in preparation to play a bigger role for the defense in 2024. He could very well be the next man up at nose guard.

“I’ve gotta prove it every day,” McDonald said. “You can’t have any bad days at Ohio State, so I’m ready to have a good day every day. I took different steps, being in the film room more, working on my craft. I think that’s been better for me.”

Though Johnson had the loftiest praise for Moore, Kanu and McDonald, former Ole Miss Rebel Tywone Malone could be another option in the next wave of DTs.

“He’s coming along really good,” Johnson said. “I think with Tywone, he was behind football-wise because he’s been a baseball player all his life. Then he goes down to his other college and he plays baseball again. So he’s behind football-wise, just technique, playing the game. It’s taken a year. Now we see the growth, we see the potential he brings to the table.”

Each of Ohio State’s backup defensive tackles recognizes the role they could play in getting the Buckeyes back to the pinnacle of college football in 2024. Now it’s time to develop their games as such.

“Our goal is to beat the Team Up North, win a championship, we can’t do it just with (the starting four),” Moore said. “We need guys to come in, get them subs when they need it so they can be the best when they’re on the field. And for us to be able to come in and help the team, that’s very needed for what our goals are.”

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