With depth depleted, inexperienced defensive tackles must emerge for Ohio State football
When losses from Ohio State’s 2019 defensive line are discussed, the first name mentioned is Chase Young, with good reason.
Young was a Heisman Trophy finalist and second pick in the NFL draft. As talented as Young was, Ohio State’s bigger challenge might be replacing the Buckeyes’ interior defensive linemen. With Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison and others, the Buckeyes are stacked at defensive end, Young’s position.
Ohio State also lost several key interior linemen. DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers didn’t get the attention Young got on or off the field, but those defensive tackles were instrumental in the Buckeyes’ defensive turnaround from its disappointing 2018 performance. Hamilton had 10½ tackles for loss, including six sacks, at nose guard.
Other than replacing three stars in the secondary, the biggest question on Ohio State’s defense is filling those holes in the middle of the line. Complicating the issue is that for now the Buckeyes are without Haskell Garrett and Taron Vincent.
Garrett, a senior who has played in 33 games, was shot in the face trying to break up an altercation this summer. He hasn’t been cleared to return to practice. Vincent, a five-star recruit two years ago, is still recovering from shoulder surgery after missing the 2019 season.
But Larry Johnson, who’s regarded as one of the top defensive line coaches in the country, believes his unit has the talent and depth to meet his high standard. Johnson believes in rotating three players at both the nose guard and three-technique spots to keep everyone fresh. With two weeks until the season opener against Nebraska, the identity of those in the rotation hasn’t been settled, Johnson said.
The safest bet is that Tommy Togiai will be the starter at nose guard after seeing significant action behind Hamilton and Landers last year. Togiai is almost unanimously regarded as the strongest player on the team, a distinction he downplays.
“It's just one they gave to me, I guess,” the junior from Idaho said. “But I'm not really concerned about that title at all.”
The primary job of the nose guard is to help control the run game, often by taking on two blockers. Hamilton’s ability as a pass-rusher was a bonus, and Johnson believes the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Togiai has that potential, too.
“He's powerful, he's strong, he's athletic,” Johnson said. “He will have a chance to rush the passer. I’m very confident he has the ability to do that.”
Antwuan Jackson looks to be the favorite to take over for Cornell at the three-technique. Jackson decommitted from Ohio State out of high school. He signed with Auburn before spending a year in junior college. He decided two years ago to come to Ohio State, after all.
As a backup in 2019, he played 201 snaps.
“I feel like I have to do better,” Jackson said of his career so far. “I have to get better every day and keep grinding to reach my potential like I want to, as I feel I need to."
Johnson said Jackson is doing just that.
“Antwuan has had a really great camp,” Johnson said. “I can tell you that he and Tommy have really been a foundation of what we're doing right now.”
At 6-2 and 295 pounds, Jackson also the ability to play nose guard. Versatility will be important because the Buckeyes have only three other uninjured scholarship defensive tackles, and none has significant experience — freshman Ty Hamilton (DaVon’s brother), redshirt freshman Jaden McKenzie and junior Jerron Cage.
Johnson said he hopes to get Garrett and Vincent back sooner rather than later. Johnson also could shift one of his defensive ends inside, especially in the “Rushmen” pass-rush package.
Though questions remain, the Buckeyes are confident that their interior linemen will be up to the job.
“I'm really excited for this year to see how we as a collective unit step up and take this challenge,” Togiai said. “Every year, coach J always says, ‘Raise the bar. Raise the standard.’ So we're going to get after this year and try to raise the bar even more.”