When Ohio State’s season began, sophomore Tyreke Smith was penciled in as the most likely candidate to start at the defensive end spot opposite standout pass-rusher Chase Young.
Smith features alluring size in his 6-foot-3 frame and the pedigree of a top high school recruit, so the promise of a breakout season emerged.
But he missed the opener because of aggravation from offseason groin surgery, then sat out two more games in September. When he returned for the final two months of the regular season, including three starts in November, Smith was hampered by a broken hand.
"The health issues hindered a little part of my game," Smith said, "but I'm not letting that be a blockade on me. I'm just gonna keep pushing, keep grinding, keep doing what I gotta do and make sure my body's right."
In advance of the Fiesta Bowl, a College Football Playoff semifinal against Clemson, Smith reported improved health. His status is consequential as the Buckeyes will need to cultivate a pass rush beyond Young against the Tigers, who feature an offensive line that has excelled at keeping star quarterback Trevor Lawrence protected in the pocket.
In 13 games, Clemson has allowed only 11 sacks, sixth fewest in FBS, and has a sack rate of 2.9%, according to Football Outsiders, a stat that ranks fourth best nationally.
Smith, who has three sacks, is as healthy as he has been this season. He looms as a possible X-factor in the Buckeyes’ effort.
"I think every game is an opportunity for me to prove myself, and I think this is one of the bigger ones," Smith said. "It's one of the opportunities I could prove to my team that I'm really a factor on defense and just help my defense. It's just a big opportunity."
Young considers Smith’s future bright when he thinks about his upside.
"He’s gotten more locked in on the real-small details," Young said. "I always tell him that if he does that and gets real locked in, he can definitely be a force to be reckoned with. I feel like he already is. Tyreke's going to be a real great football player. He still has some things to improve on, because who doesn't? He's a twitchy guy, he's a smart football player. I feel like he's gonna be real good in the future."
The Buckeyes could benefit if the future comes Saturday.