Bonds With Teammates, Unobtained Goals Brought JT Tuimoloau Back to Ohio State

By Andy Anders on July 3, 2024 at 11:35 am
JT Tuimoloau

No one factor pushed JT Tuimoloau to stay at Ohio State for one final season rather than go pro.

His decision-making process, like many of his teammates who returned to the Buckeyes in 2024, was more of an ongoing conversation. Ultimately, it’s the bonds he’s built within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center and the growth he still feels is on the table that led him back to Columbus.

“There's a lot that went into it,” Tuimoloau said in March. “First, I had to take a step back mentally and just really look at it, spend a lot of time with my family and my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and just allowing him to lead me. When you’re young and your dream is right there, you’re so tempted to just go and get it. But once you look at it, for me, it was just the brotherhood here and me as a person, I felt like there was a lot more that I could improve on skill-wise and (it’s) where my body wanted to be at.”

With Tuimoloau’s return, Ohio State secured a core of four returning starters along its defensive line, with Jack Sawyer securing the flank opposite Tuimoloau at defensive end. The two will bracket Tyleik Williams and Ty Hamilton on the interior.

Last year, the objective for Tuimoloau was consistency.

The top-rated prospect in Ohio State’s lauded 2021 recruiting class – outside a reclassified Quinn Ewers, anyway – Tuimoloau didn’t arrive on campus until July due to a delayed decision from COVID-19 but managed to find the field immediately as a freshman. He played 12 games in 2021 and even started some, picking up 17 tackles and 2.5 sacks.

Tuimoloau broke out with one of the greatest individual defensive performances in Buckeye history in October 2022, recording six tackles with three tackles for loss, two sacks, two interceptions with one pick-six, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one batted pass that led to another interception against Penn State.

His numbers otherwise on the season weren’t quite as impressive, with 28 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks in total for his first campaign as a starter. Thus the call for consistency last offseason, and he upped his production to 38 tackles, seven tackles for loss and five sacks in 2023 en route to a first-team All-Big Ten selection by both the coaches and media.

This offseason, the focus is on physical conditioning with a few tweaks to his game.

“For me, it's just getting leaner and twitchier, just continue to react quicker and not feel like I'm thinking out there,” Tuimoloau said. “Being able to run around every Saturday, every time we play on the field and just having that motor under me, I feel like that starts here in the weight room.”

When it came time to deliberate his decision, Tuimoloau leaned on Sawyer alongside his family and faith. Sawyer barely stopped short of announcing his return before the Cotton Bowl against Missouri in December, ultimately waiting until Jan. 5 to make it official. Tuimoloau joined him one week later.

“Me and Jack talked a lot. A lot is probably an understatement,” Tuimoloau said. “We had so many goals coming in our freshman year and I feel like me and him decided to come back, and that spoke volumes. Understanding that the goals we’ve had set upon us and set for our defense, individual goals and as a unit, for the D-line, our goals were right there. They’re all reachable. And once we thought about that, we became even more motivated to come back.”

The "goals" Tuimoloau referenced are typically the same three every year at Ohio State: Beat Michigan, win the Big Ten, win a national championship. In each of his three years, Tuimoloau and the Buckeyes have failed to achieve any of the three.

It also helped to see the defense as a whole returning so many key pieces. Outside of the defensive line, four other starters possessing day two or three NFL draft stock returned in linebacker Cody Simon, safety Lathan Ransom and cornerbacks Denzel Burke and Jordan Hancock. 

“The guys we had coming back played a huge role,” Tuimoloau said. “I'm pretty sure you guys saw and heard how many of us came back. I think that just speaks volumes to who we are as men and what this culture does to us.”

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson felt Tuimoloau and Sawyer’s decisions to come back spoke to the culture of the Buckeyes’ position room.

“There was a possibility those guys could leave, and it was just a great conversation,” Johnson said in March. “It's a culture, it's a brotherhood, it's all the reasons why they came back. But we spent a lot of time talking, we talked to the parents. It still came down to them making a decision (on) what's best for them. And they all felt the best thing was to come back and try to do it again.”

Tuimoloau and almost all his teammates are also entering their third year in the scheme of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, fresh off of posting the nation’s No. 2 scoring, No. 3 total and No. 1 passing defense in 2023. Only two projected starters on the Buckeyes’ defense won’t be entering their respective third years with Knowles, those being cornerback Davison Igbinosun, who will be in his second, and free safety Caleb Downs, the No. 1 transfer in the country per 247Sports.

“I think it allows us to open up our game,” Tuimoloau said. “Having Caleb, having Sonny (Styles) in those positions, we just have athletes everywhere, and I think for us being three years in this system now, we know it on the back of our hands to where now we can make a lot of different adjustments and allow dudes to be dudes.”

Tuimoloau has high expectations for what he and his returning teammates can accomplish in 2024, but to borrow a tired cliché, he’s taking it day by day.

“I feel like all the pieces that we needed to come back, we came back,” Tuimoloau said. “I think right now all we're doing is trying to gel, trying to get closer, have our bond be stronger than ever. A lot of people are looking at it as ‘Natty or bust’ or ‘You have no excuses.’ But I think for us, we're just keeping it between these walls and understanding, learning more of who we are as players and what makes us us, and just continuing to grow and develop.”

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