Ohio State football defensive line coach Larry Johnson eyes improvement from pass rush

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson knows the issue is pressing.

“We've got to get to the quarterback,” he said. “Our guys know that. My room knows that. I know that. I don't sleep well when we can't get pressure on the quarterback.”

There might be a lot of restless nights. A pass rush that has been a recent staple of the Buckeyes’ defense has been listless to start this season.

The four sacks by the Buckeyes are their fewest through three games since 2010 and rank No. 95 among 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. When they were upset by Oregon this month, they failed to sack Ducks quarterback Anthony Brown.

Ohio State defensive end Tyreke Smith pressures Tulsa quarterback Davis Brin. The Buckeyes allowed 501 total yards Saturday.

Among the issues ailing Ohio State on defense, the lack of pressure brought on by their defensive linemen has been the most unusual.

Johnson sees the potential for improvement from his unit rooted in matchups. If defensive ends and tackles prevail in 1-on-1 battles with offensive linemen, they’ll break into the backfield and be within reach of a quarterback.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said.

But he says the proper technique needed in order to be successful in those matchups has been missing.

“We’re still trying to bull rush a guy using your hands,” Johnson said. “You can’t bull rush a guy the whole entire game and think you’ll just push him into the quarterback’s lap. So it’s back to the basic fundamentals that we teach, using your hands, using your hips and being really speedy off the line of scrimmage to make it happen.”

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When asked if he felt disappointed by his position group’s start to the season, Johnson wouldn’t say as much. He sees reasons for optimism.  

“I think that there's room for improvement, and it starts with the guy standing in front of you,” he said. “We've got to find a way to improve their skill set and get them going, and that's what we're going to work on and spend all day and night figuring it out. We'll get it fixed. They've got a lot of pride in the room. They're not sitting around smiling. They know we've got some work to do.”

The emergence of a handful of freshmen might give a boost in the trenches. Jack Sawyer doesn’t have a sack, but he’s gotten off at the line of scrimmage so quickly at times that he’s drawn holding penalties. Tyleik Williams had a critical sack in the fourth quarter against Tulsa that ended the Golden Hurricane’s potential game-tying drive. And J.T. Tuimoloau is going to see more playing time too in the coming weeks after playing a season-high 45 snaps against Tulsa, according to Pro Football Focus. He played a combined 25 snaps in the first two games.

Ohio State defensive tackle Jacolbe Cowan pressures Tulsa quarterback Davis Brin on Saturday.

“I always start freshmen slow and bring them along,” Johnson said.

He is mindful of putting them in favorable situations in order to preserve their confidence and create opportunities for “positive reinforcement.”

But an improved pass rush might hinge on the development of the freshman class unless veterans such as Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith make a bigger impact.

With a tougher pass rush, the Buckeyes should help the back end of their defense.

“If we do that,” Johnson said, “we’ll change the game.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman.

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