Soft-spoken J.T. Tuimoloau's fiery words sparked Ohio State out of post-Michigan doldrums

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

When Ryan Day decided to hold two practices the week after the devastating loss to Michigan, the feeling among some players was essentially, “What's the point?”

The Buckeyes looked like longshots to make the College Football Playoff. It’s safe to assume that many NFL-bound players – seniors and underclassmen – would have opted out of a non-CFP bowl game.

J.T. Tuimoloau sensed the doldrums and didn’t want them to settle in. He’s only a sophomore and soft-spoken by nature. But the defensive end felt a responsibility.

After talking with his family and getting the blessing of veterans, Tuimoloau gave a rousing speech at the beginning of practice. He reminded his teammates that they still had a path to the playoff. These practices couldn’t be wasted.

“God pretty much just told me, ‘Hey, this is your chance to bring the team back together,’” Tuimoloau said Wednesday. “I took that chance and ran with it.”

He needn’t have worried about how his teammates would respond to him seizing the moment.

“I don't see him as a young guy because he's playing a lot of football here, and he’s a hard worker and guys respect him,” senior defensive end Zach Harrison said. “If you’ve got the respect of the team, you can say whatever you want to say.”

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Tuimoloau emerged this season as one of Ohio State’s best defensive players after signing last year as a five-star recruit shortly before training camp started. Big Ten coaches voted Tuimoloau a first-team all-conference selection.

His game at Penn State was one for the ages. He had two interceptions, including a pick-six, a tipped pass for another interception, two sacks and a forced fumble as Ohio State rallied for a 44-31 victory.

Teammates said Tuimoloau’s words changed the entire vibe of practice last week.

“We were probably going to waste that day if he didn't say anything,” safety Tanner McAlister said. “To be honest, before he spoke, nobody really wanted to be there just because we thought our (CFP hopes) were done.”

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Utah’s victory over Southern California in the Pac-12 title game opened the door for Ohio State to make the playoff as the fourth seed. The Buckeyes play No. 1 Georgia in the semifinals at the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve.

Beating the Bulldogs, the defending national champions, will be a daunting task. Ohio State is an underdog for the first time this season.

But the Buckeyes are grateful they have a chance at all after losing to Michigan. They also are thankful that Tuimoloau spoke up so the Buckeyes could get a jump start on preparing.

“J.T.’s a phenomenal player, but he's a phenomenal kid off the field as well,” safety Ronnie Hickman said. “You can ask anyone in the locker room.

“For him to be the grade he's in, the age he's in, and where he's at development-wise, to come up in front of the whole team and open his heart to us, it was huge. I think it opened up a lot of guys’ hearts that we’re still in it, that it’s not over. And it’s not over.”

Even though he's not naturally the most vocal guy, Tuimoloau is glad he spoke up.

“All the guys in this program are pretty much my motivation,” he said. “I felt we needed to get back on track. These boys push me to go my hardest and bring out the best in me every day. Being a young buck and being around them I know where we are as a team. I know what we can bring. I just wanted to reiterate that the job's not finished.”

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