COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State’s defense, specifically its defensive line, had its toughness questioned last year after giving up nearly 300 yards rushing in their first loss to Michigan since 2011.

The Buckeyes also gave up more than 200 yards rushing to Oregon and Utah. But there are two note-worthy changes that have happened since last season: Ryan Day hired Jim Knowles to take over the defense and the Buckeyes’ younger players have experience.

Knowles says he expects OSU to have a top-five defense. That starts with the rushmen.

“When we unleash them, and we’re going to find ways to unleash them, . . . they get after the quarterback,” Knowles said.

Virtually all of last year’s defensive linemen return this year, so the most logical question is why would this season be any different than 2021?

The first reason is depth.

“They’re deep. They just keep coming at you in waves man. They just keep coming over the wall,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said.

Wilson compared this year’s defensive line to his first year at OSU in 2017 when the Buckeyes had Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Tyquan Lewis.

It remains to be seen whether any current player is good enough to be a first-round draft pick. But defensive line coach Larry Johnson, who’s coached some of the best d-linemen in OSU history, believes the Buckeyes have at least 12 players who are good enough to play on Saturdays.

“The energy and spirit in practice has been off the charts. Better than it’s ever been since I’ve been here,” said Johnson who arrived in 2019. “I’m really pleased with where they’re at right now.”

The other reason this year will be different is experience. Ohio State’s sophomore class includes defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer who were ranked the No. 2 and No. 3 defensive linemen in the country in 2021, respectively. The duo saw limited playing time last year, but this season they’ll be an integral part of the defense.

‘I heard a quote one time that says ‘pressure is a privilege,'” Sawyer said. “If anyone feels like I should have pressure that’s kind of a good thing, but at the same time I’m not worried about pressure. I’m just trying to play as a hard and as best I can every time I step on the field.”

On the inside, Tyleik Williams and Mike Hall Jr. also return with a full year under their belt. They, along with junior Ty Hamilton, will play behind graduate Jerron Cage and 5th-year senior Taron Vincent. Hall, Hamilton and Williams will be used in Knowles’ defense and could even claim a starting role as the season progresses.

“It’s just like a one-two punch. Once I’m tired and I’m out of breath and winded, you’ve got a freshman lineman on going on just as fast as me going just as hard as me,” Cage said. “it’s not just me tiring them out. It’s ‘OK. Let me catch my breath and then let’s go attack them again.'”

The rushmen should also return to being one of the best fronts in football because they have senior leadership. Most importantly, senior captain Tyler Friday returns after missing the entire 2021 season.

“It was very difficult but I’ve got a great team here full of brothers,” Friday said. “[Being voted captain] is a big honor. It was something I wasn’t even expecting and to come off injury last year and get that kind of title this year is a blessing.”

His hunger to return will be matched by that of graduate Javontae Jean-Baptiste and senior Zach Harrison who were two of the most critiqued players in OSU’s losses to Oregon and Michigan.

“This is it. This is my last chance so why not really, really give everything,” Harrison said. “I said before I was going to give everything but I didn’t really know what that meant all the way and so now I’m the older guys in the room and I’ve got guys behind me who are looking at me to set the standard.”

Jean-Baptiste is battling for the starting “Jack” position, a hybrid between linebacker and defensive end. Sawyer and Palaie Gaoteote are also getting practice at the position, which will also be rotated in and out.