COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State’s defensive line calls itself the rushmen. But their ability to do that hasn’t measured up to the expected standard in recent years. That’s at least true against the best teams in the country, such as Michigan and Georgia.
But 2023 could be different for the rushmen, who return defensive ends Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau along with defensive tackles Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall. All four are entering their third seasons with the Buckeyes, and all have seen significant playing time.
“On the defensive side of the ball, our mindset is we’re going to win games this year, and we’re not going to leave it up to the offense to score 40-50 points a game,” Sawyer said. “The standard is holding teams to single digits.”
Sawyer’s role will change more than any other player on the d-line after he took a majority of his snaps at the “jack” position, a hybrid between outside linebacker and defensive end. Now, he’s back to solely focusing on being an edge rusher.
“I feel very comfortable being back at defensive end. You know, I feel happy about it,” Sawyer said. “When me, [defensive coordinator Jim] Knowles and [line coach Larry Johnson] talked about it after the season, that’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what they thought I was best at, too.”
Jack departing the “jack” clears room for Mitchell Melton, who looked primed to fill the role last season until suffering a torn knee ligament in the spring game. He’s fully healthy and ready to prove he’s the right man for that spot.
“I think when Coach Knowles came [to Ohio State last season] with that position, I kind of saw myself there.” Melton said. “But I know these things happen for a reason, so I just kept working and bided my time. … In high school, I definitely succeeded at that kind of position, so I think there’s some similarities there, and I can be successful.”
At the other defensive end spot, Tuimoloau is looking for better consistency. The highest-rated defensive recruit ever for Ohio State flashed during most of last season, especially against Penn State, but he knows there’s another level to his game.
“Just got to keep working on all the little things, all the small little details to keep leveling up our game and keep pushing our brothers,” Tuimoloau said.
Next to those ends will be Hall, who, when healthy, is one of the best defensive tackles in college football. Health was a major concern for Hall, who dealt with a shoulder injury most of last season.
“[He’s] in the best shape he’s ever been in … explosive, quick, good instincts, all the things you want to see from a guy to play inside,” Johnson said. “I think he leads by example sometimes. He goes really hard in practice. They get a chance to see that and appreciate that.”
There are several other interior defensive linemen to watch, including Pickerington Central’s Ty Hamilton, Williams and senior Jaden McKenzie.
Outside of those six players, the depth chart gets a little foggy. Johnson said they’re still in the evaluation period to determine which players will see the field and how many snaps they’ll take.
“We might play five guys, we might play six guys. It really depends how we develop and come along,” Johnson said. “We want to rotate, we want to stay fresh. Maybe [Jack and J.T.] will play more plays this year, but that’s going to be determined once we start the season.”
One player who could also rotate at defensive end is sophomore Kenyatta Jackson, who’s received high praise from Johnson and his Buckeye teammates this fall.
“KJ’s been around as a freshman. He’s had the chance to sit back and watch guys develop, watch guys use their technique,” Johnson said. “Now, when you’re there for a year, you get a chance to start doing it yourself, so I think that’s what’s happening.”
Johnson added he’s challenged the defensive line to think about more than themselves and their personal stats.
“Let’s be part of a unit that does everything special and I think that’s the key,” Johnson said. “We’re trying not to say that guy’s got this skill, that guy has this skill. How bout we put all those skills together and go play as a unit and try to become the best unit in college football.”