'I needed to be more': With son as motivation, Ohio State's Cage eager for big senior year

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State defensive tackle Jerron Cage started against Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 11.

Jerron Cage became a father last June. He couldn’t see Jerron Jr. for most of his infancy.

Cage got the first start of his Ohio State career in the College Football Playoff championship. But that was bittersweet. The opportunity happened because his close friend Tommy Togiai got COVID-19 and couldn’t play.

The last year has been one of sacrifice and perseverance for many people. It certainly was for Cage.

But he believes the adversity has made him better, on and off the field. Now a senior, the Buckeyes nose tackle believes he’s finally ready to fulfill his potential.

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His son’s birth serves as prime motivation. Jerron Jr. was born June 22. Cage was with him for the first month in Cincinnati before OSU players returned to Columbus to begin preparing for a season that looked like it might not happen.

“He gave me a reason to come up here, but also it was like a heartbreak to even leave him,” Cage said. “It was hard for me. It was really hard for me.”

Because the Buckeyes mostly had to stay in a team bubble to ward off COVID, Cage was able to see his son only two or three times the rest of the year. He FaceTimed his son nearly every day, but that wasn’t the same as being there.

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“You just tried to make sure he can hear your voice,” Cage said. “He didn't really understand what was going on because he would look at the phone and be so confused. It was really hard because I wanted to be there.”

What made the sacrifice harder was that Cage was a backup who saw limited snaps for most of the season. Cage acknowledged his frustration that his early years at Ohio State didn’t go as planned and that he was near the bottom of the rotation of a talented group of defensive tackles.

Ohio State defensive end Zach Harrison (9) combines for a tackle with defensive tackle Jerron Cage (86) against Michigan State on Dec. 5.

“I feel like it was really, really slow,” he said of his progress. “I had a lot of distractions at first. But once I started to figure it out, I feel like my game started getting better. I felt it had to change within me before I could change it on the field.”

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson had seen glimpses of Cage’s ability, but consistency and focus were issues.

“I think all young kids kind of get to that point where they’re not playing and they’re behind some really good players,” Johnson said. “How do you see yourself? Do you keep grinding, keep pushing?”

Cage did, inspired by his son.

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“It played a huge role because it made me grow up real fast,” he said. “I needed to be more. I needed to do more. My son has my last name, my full name. I want him to look at me and look at his name like, ‘Dang, my dad did this. I want to do better.’”

Cage said his teammates, particularly fellow linemen Togiai, Tyreke Smith and Taron Vincent, were invaluable in helping him cope with the separation from his son.

Cage improved as last season went on, though he remained a backup. Then Togiai found out before the CFP title game that he’d tested positive for the coronavirus and would have to miss the game.

“When I got that call from Tommy and I saw him crying on the phone, it broke me,” Cage said. “It broke my heart. I don’t think I’ve ever cared about people so much on my team than I do about my D-line guys.”

Ohio State defensive tackle Jerron Cage (98) celebrates a fumble recovery in 2019.

Cage was determined not to let Togiai down. But the Alabama game did not turn out the way Cage or the Buckeyes wanted. Ohio State couldn’t stop the Crimson Tide’s potent offense in the 52-24 loss.

Cage injured his ankle and quadriceps on the same play in the first quarter. He returned in the second quarter and tried to gut it out.

“It was really hard for me to run,” he said. “I just had to tough it out to do as much as I can in the time I was in there.”

Still, knowing he played on the biggest stage gives him confidence that he can make his senior year a big one. Cage has built on that progress this spring.

“He’s been outstanding,” Johnson said. “You can see a different kid on the football field. I think it’s maturity, just growing up.”

On Saturday, Cage will play in OSU’s spring game. It will be a special day for him because he expects his son, now 9 months old, to be there. All that his teammates and coaches have seen of Jerron Jr. are photos and videos.

“He just started walking last week,” Cage said. “He’s taking like six steps at a time and then falling. He picks up on stuff real quick. He’s saying, ‘Bye,’ saying, ‘I love you.’

“Hopefully, I can get him on the sideline with me and show him to the players,” he said. “Nobody’s seen him.”

Johnson certainly wants to.

“The father in you comes out when you get around babies, and I’m a big baby guy,” he said. “I can’t wait to see the smile on his face.”