Ohio State football defensive end Tyreke Smith looks to fulfill promise in senior season

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith, here tackling Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in the College Football Playoff semifinal, had a team-leading 33 quarterback pressures last season.

Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith pulled into the parking lot at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center a week before the College Football Playoff championship game in January when he learned some disappointing news.

A team trainer called. He had tested positive for the coronavirus, a development that would cause him to miss the title game.

“I'm like, ‘For real?’” Smith said, recalling the sequence last week. “I'm like, ‘Man, nah. You can’t be right.’ And it was.”

Positive COVID test is latest setback in Tyreke Smith's Buckeyes career

Initially, Smith had difficulty in coming to terms with his positive test. He felt no symptoms of the virus, leaving him in disbelief.

But he soon sought to maintain perspective ahead of the matchup with Alabama.

“I didn't want to get mad,” Smith said. “I couldn't do anything about it. I just told my teammates to go out there and play their best for me. They know what to do. I just got to hold my head high.”

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It was the latest setback in Smith’s career. As much promise as he has shown in three seasons with the Buckeyes, nagging injuries have at times prevented him from realizing his full potential as the next great Buckeyes pass rusher.

As a sophomore in 2019, Smith underwent groin surgery in the preseason that sidelined him for the opener.

Then later on in September, he missed a pair of games due to additional injury.

Preparing for his senior season in the fall, he feels as if he is in the best physical shape of his career and isn’t taking his health for granted.

“It’s up to me to keep my body right,” Smith said. “I’m just trying to get there and get better every day. I came back one last year to perfect my craft, try to give myself another chance and my team another chance.

“I’m not trying to waste my chance, I’m trying to go out there every day. If it’s a lift, I’m giving 100%. If it’s practice, I’m locked in, I’m trying to find my technique. Meetings, same thing. I’m locked in. That’s how I’m trying to approach it.”

Some of the signs for a breakout season were present last fall, as Smith was disruptive when rushing the passer.

Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith sacks Michigan State quarterback Rocky Lombardi on Dec. 5. Even though Smith had 33 quarterback pressures last season, he had only one sack.

He totaled 33 quarterback pressures, tied for the most on the team with Jonathon Cooper, according to data from Pro Football Focus.

But they didn’t always translate into sacks. In seven games, he had one sack.

Assessing his performance, Smith sees little details as keeping him from finishing with a higher sack total.

“Maybe I didn't reach out for the ball to try to get a strip-sack or something like that,” he said. “I'm trying to make sure I stay on myself to do those things right, do the little things in a game that could lead to big things."

But defensive line coach Larry Johnson saw Smith was on the right path last season, even if sacks rarely materialized.

“One thing I don't want to do is change what he's doing," Johnson said. “He's done a great job rushing the quarterback and will continue to do that. I don't try to panic about it because that could make a kid think, 'Oh, I've got to go make a sack now.' Now you have a kid jumping out of lanes or doing things that we shouldn't do in a defensive scheme.”

Steps toward plotting a big senior season

Johnson accounted for other factors, as well. The teams that Ohio State faced in 2020 were led by quarterbacks with quick deliveries looking to get throws off before the rush could bring them to the turf.

It wasn’t only Smith who was affected. In similar fashion, Cooper had only 3.5 sacks for his 33 pressures.

“We were close so many times from making a big play,” Johnson said, “but we didn't get there.”

Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith tackles Michigan State running back Connor Heyward on Dec. 5.

In spring practice, the Buckeyes’ defensive linemen have worked to more easily recognize quick-release plays from passers. Each second could make a difference.

It’s one part of Smith’s steps toward plotting a big senior season.

“Tyreke's been balling ever since spring started," said Zach Harrison, a junior defensive end who could end up as the starter opposite Smith. "I saw a difference in winter workouts, too. We all got together and decided what we had to be and Tyreke’s taking the next step, too.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman