After emotional final season, Ohio State strongman Tommy Togiai readies for NFL

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai, here tackling Clemson running back Travis Etienne in the College Football Playoff semifinal, hopes to break the NFL scouting combine record for bench press at the Buckeyes' pro day on Tuesday.

Tommy Togiai began lifting weights when he was in middle school.

His parents’ home in Pocatello, Idaho, featured a bench and squat rack for him and his older brothers.

In the seventh grade, he signed up for a membership to a local Gold’s Gym.

It served as preparation for high school football before the budding lineman developed into a top-100 prospect, drew interest from Ohio State and became an interior force for the Buckeyes’ defense.

But Togiai also developed an appreciation for lifting in the early days.

“It grew up from there,” he said, “and I always loved working out.”

Togiai sets high bar for Ohio State's pro day

His dedication came to impress Buckeyes teammates who labeled him the team’s strongest player in the past couple of seasons.

That strength will be under close watch when Ohio State hosts its pro day on Tuesday, serving as one of the most intriguing storylines surrounding the event.  

Togiai has his sights set on recording 50 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press, a total that would surpass the NFL scouting combine record of 49 set by Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen Paea in 2011.

Tommy Togiai finished last season with three sacks and 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and was a consensus All-Big Ten second-team selection.

In setting the ambitious target, Togiai also has been raising money for Ohio State’s LiFEsports program, seeking donations for every bench-press rep he puts up.

While known for weight room feats, Togiai emerged as a promising draft prospect on the field last fall.

'Step up and be that guy' mindset helped Buct

Debuting as a starter at nose tackle, he swarmed backfields and finished with three sacks and 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during a season shortened by the coronavirus pandemic. He ended up a consensus All-Big Ten second-team selection.

Togiai said he knew the Buckeyes needed a breakout season from him in 2020 after losses of interior defensive linemen Jashon Cornell and DaVon Hamilton, leaving him extra motivated throughout the offseason and as he was left to work out away from the team in Idaho during last spring’s COVID-19 shutdown.

“Having that mindset that I need to be able to step up and be that guy in a role that needs to be filled,” he said.

It was productive enough of a season that Togiai felt as if he was prepared to file for early entry in the draft rather than remain with the Buckeyes for his senior season.

He felt fully healthy, too.

“I had no serious injuries,” he said. “If I went back, I didn’t want to risk injury.”

Then there was the emotional toll of the past season, featuring a delayed start in October and multiple canceled games due to virus outbreaks.

COVID sidelined Togiai for national title game

As Togiai considered his future options in January, he felt uncertain about what the fall of 2021 might look like in college football, even with encouraging news about distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the U.S.

“The ups and downs of this last season was so critical mentally for a lot of guys, including myself,” he said.

The end of the season was particularly discouraging for Togiai.

On the morning after the team returned to Columbus following its College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl, he reported for daily COVID-19 testing at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

Not suspecting anything unusual after taking his test, Togiai stepped into a training room at the facility to undergo treatment. It was less than 24 hours after he had been entangled with offensive linemen in the Superdome.

But a trainer soon told him he had tested positive for the virus, sidelining him for the national championship game.

Ohio State defensive tackle Tommy Togiai celebrates the 49-28 win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

“It was just heartbreaking,” Togiai said. “I was just thinking there was no way I got it because I was really careful where I went, who I was around. Kind of stayed in my bubble.”

Left to self-isolating at the Hyatt Place following the positive test, he watched the Buckeyes’ title game loss to Alabama on TV.

The defeat left him in tears. Not only was he out for the biggest game of the season, but he was separated from his teammates.

It was all the more frustrating to process as he felt no symptoms despite testing positive.

“I felt normal,” he said.

While preparing for the draft at an EXOS training facility in Phoenix for the past months, Togiai has sought to continue his mid-season momentum.

Along with strength building, he’s focused on position work, pass-rush skills and hand placement, to show scouts his development into a well-rounded defensive lineman.

Most of all, he tells teams in pre-draft interviews about the effort he gives on the field.

“I tell them I'm a high-energy guy that loves to work and bring 100% every day in practice or in meetings,” he said. “Always be accountable to the team.”

He’s also been taking five online classes through Ohio State this spring in an effort to finish his final semester and graduate with a degree in consumer finance.

Togiai first picked the degree program for the possibility of becoming a financial advisor after his playing days end.

Once he’s selected off the draft board, it might also have a practical money management application.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman