Ohio State has been considered one of the top defensive units in the country for the better part of two seasons. The combination of the team’s starters and the Buckeyes’ depth players have applied ample pressure on opponents as it has allowed the coaching staff to rotate fresh backups in for tired starters of nearly the same caliber.
That depth will be tested Saturday, however, as Ohio State will again be without both starting defensive tackles: suspended Michael Hill and injured Dre’Mont Jones.
Against a team like Maryland, however, that depth could be tested. The Terrapins have built their offense this season on their ability to run the football as they have lost two quarterbacks — Tyrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill — for the season with torn ACLs.
But defensive line coach Larry Johnson said he believes the depth at the line will prove enough to maintain pressure on the line.
“I think we’ve got enough guys there that we can move around and change the numbers if we wanted to,” Johnson said.
This season, Maryland ranks 24th in the nation with 233.5 rushing yards per game and has scored 12 of its 21 touchdowns on the ground. Both running backs Ty Johnson and Lorenzo Harrison III have more than 200-plus rushing yards this season.
“The two running backs are dynamic,” Johnson said. “I think they’ve both got great vision, they can cut on a dime. We’ve got to do a great job of holding that gaps. We can’t jump by a gap and we’ve got to play run well and just hold the gaps.”
With neither Ohio State starter at defensive tackle available to play last Saturday, redshirt senior defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle and senior defensive end Jalyn Holmes lined up on the inside with defensive ends Sam Hubbard and Tyquan Lewis starting outside.
Holmes might be capable of fitting in at defensive tackle, but having to turn to him and Sprinkle as starters at tackle puts the depth in question. Though the team won handily last week with the pair starting, Ohio State did not have to rely on them for too long as the Buckeyes were out to a 35-0 lead at halftime and played reserve players for the remainder of the game.
Sprinkle was listed as one of the two starters at tackle again, but Holmes was not listed in the top spot at defensive tackle. Instead, he was listed as a starter at defensive end again while redshirt sophomore Jashon Cornell was the top name that appeared as the second defensive tackle.
However, defensive line coach Larry Johnson confirmed Holmes is expected to be the starter at tackle next to Sprinkle, a task Sprinkle said every player needs to be ready for all the time.
It is not common to see people make the transition from end to tackle. As Sprinkle said, it typically takes a player who is shorter and a bit stockier than other ends like Hubbard and Nick Bosa. However, Sprinkle said Holmes has worked hard at the position with Johnson and has adapted well to the change.
“It was probably good fun, but [Hubbard and Bosa] are not like built to be inside,” Sprinkle said. “Jalyn’s a pretty big dude, so he can get down there and get physical.”
Though he has the size needed to play on the inside, Holmes also provides a different look than what interior offensive linemen are accustomed with coming from defensive end.
“He has a lot of speed,” Sprinkle said. “Me and Dre’Mont may think we got speed, but when you bring a defensive end inside, you can see the difference of the speed. But he’s a real big guy and he can move fast.”
Johnson and Sprinkle have both been impressed with the returns from Holmes, but they both know he can’t be the only guy relied on to fill the void left by the losses of Jones and Hill.
Confidence in players further down the depth chart like redshirt sophomore defensive tackles Robert Landers and Cornell will become crucial as the team heads into the weekend’s matchup against Maryland.
Between defensive tackles Davon Hamilton, Haskell Garrett, Landers and Cornell, Johnson said the team should be able to keep a steady stream of fresh, talented bodies on the line that should withstand the Terrapins’ rushing attack.
“That’s the reason why the depth is so good because those guys are starting to play well,” Johnson said. “I think those guys really complement each other when they go on the field.”