Ohio State football's defensive line has depth, but can genuine stars emerge?

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of six stories looking at the most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2022 season.

Today, Part 5: Who can emerge as a star on the defensive line?

In the past decade, Ohio State has been blessed with three ultra-elite defensive linemen and plenty more just below that.

Defensive end Joey Bosa dominated on the Buckeyes’ 2014 title team. His brother Nick played at the same level, and his season-ending injury in 2018 was a major reason Ohio State fell short of making the College Football Playoff. Chase Young was another generational talent.

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And there were others – Johnathan Hankins, Michael Bennett, Adolphus Washington, Tyquan Lewis, Sam Hubbard, Jalyn Holmes, Dre’Mont Jones, DaVon Hamilton – who any program would brag about having.

It’s an incredibly high bar the Buckeyes have maintained in the tenure of Larry Johnson, who’s considered the best defensive line coach in college football history.

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Last year, the Buckeyes’ defensive line was generally solid. At times, it was excellent. But in losses to Oregon and Michigan, it got pushed around in the run game. Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett led the Buckeyes with only 5½ sacks. As a team, OSU had 37 sacks and ranked tied for 28th nationally.

Johnson is the only returning coach on the defensive staff, and there is pressure on him to get his unit back to its lofty standard. As training camp opens, whether it can do so is one of the team’s biggest questions.

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The defensive line has plenty of quality depth. Probably 12 players have a legitimate chance to play in the rotation system that Johnson favors. But is anyone ready to play at close to a Bosa or Young level?

“It's good to have depth,” coach Ryan Day said. “But who's going to take the next step as the next great one to be the guy that we're counting on to make a play on third down when the game's on the line? That'll be the challenge.”

Defensive end Zach Harrison four sacks in 2021.

Zach Harrison

The Buckeyes have plenty of candidates.

Zach Harrison was a five-star recruit from Olentangy Orange who has steadily improved. He showed flashes of dominance last year as well as more overall consistency. Harrison led the team with eight tackles for loss. But if he’s going to become elite he must have more than the four sacks he had in 2021.

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“He's had a really good offseason,” Day said. “I’m really impressed with just the way he's going about his business. Looks awesome, so we're expecting a big year from Zach.”

J.T. Tuimoloau had 4½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks as a freshman.
J.T. Tuimoloau had 4½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks as a freshman.
“These are guys that do not have limitations,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said of sophomores Jack Sawyer, left, and J.T. Tuimoloau.

J.T. Tuimoloau

J.T. Tuimoloau’s recruitment last summer extended almost to the start of training camp before he finally decided to become a Buckeye. Ranked as one of the top overall prospects in the country, Tuimoloau’s talent was evident from the start. His 4½ tackles for loss and 2½ sacks as a freshman should serve as a tease for what he can be.

Buckeyes:Despite late arrival, J.T. Tuimoloau making early impact on Ohio State defensive line

“J.T.'s just so fast and very athletic for his size,” safety Ronnie Hickman said.

Jack Sawyer

Jack Sawyer was Ohio State’s other five-star defensive end in its 2021 recruiting class. Johnson referred to him as a finesse player last year, but the Pickerington native has gained about 30 pounds, which should enable him to use power as well as speed.

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“These are guys that do not have limitations,” defensive coordinator Jim Knowles said of Sawyer and Tuimoloau. “It's my job to grow them to put them into the different positions to succeed and to utilize their skills to the fullest, but there's no limits on their success.”

Tyleik Williams (91) had five sacks and 21 pressures as a freshman in only 114 pass rushes.

Tyleik Williams

Tyleik Williams had five sacks as a freshman in only 114 pass rushes, according to Pro Football Focus, and 21 pressures. But he was held back by his physical conditioning.

“I was fat,” he said this spring.

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Williams lost 40 pounds by the spring, which should aid his impressive initial quickness off the snap.

Taron Vincent (6) entered OSU as a five-star tackle but has been slowed by injuries.

Taron Vincent

Taron Vincent entered OSU as a five-star tackle but has been beset by injuries. Finally healthy at the end of last year, he was a force in the Rose Bowl and looks poised to build on that.

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“I think Taron is going to be great,” Knowles said. “He's got experience. He showed great leadership and a great attitude. He’s open to the process of wanting to learn the new system. And he's smart. He's picked things up quickly, so I think the sky's the limit.”

Other Buckeyes poised for breakthroughs on Ohio State football's defensive line

Day also mentioned the return of defensive end Tyler Friday, who missed last season with a torn ACL. Javontae Jean-Baptiste is a fifth-year defensive end and tackle Jerron Cage is in his sixth year with the program.

Tyler Friday returns after missing last season with a torn ACL.

Michael Hall Jr., Ty Hamilton and possibly freshman Caden Curry could also be poised for breakthroughs.

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“We have so many guys on the D-line right now,” Day said. “It's a deep group, and I think when you see some of their body changes, you're going to be surprised. They've had a great offseason.”

A great offseason is nice. But only if it translates to the season.

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at brabinowitz@dispatch.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.