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Football: Young defensive linemen carving roles at Ohio State

Ohio State freshman defensive end Tyreke Smith (11) takes down Michigan State junior quarterback Brian Lewerke (14) in the second quarter of the game against Michigan State on Nov. 10. Ohio State won 26-6. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

Boom: a phrase used rampantly among college football recruiters nationwide.

The response assistant athletic director Mark Pantoni, the person at the head of Ohio State recruiting, usually used each time a player committed, usually accompanied by a gif of some sort.

Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s response to the commitment and eventual signing of five-star 2019 defensive end Zach Harrison, the No. 1 recruit from the state of Ohio and the No. 4 recruit in the country, was not original by any means.

But it was one that signaled a continuation of what he had started with his position group, unabated through the losses of 11 All-American defensive ends and seven eventual first round draft picks.

“Boom,” Johnson said through an animated emoji posted from his Twitter page on Dec. 19.

Acting head coach Ryan Day said Harrison is a recruit Johnson had been after for a long time prior to securing his commitment.

Because Johnson has an obligation to Ohio State, an obligation he does not hide from his players.

“Basically, we [need to] have the same energy from before, from now and from after,” freshman defensive end Tyreke Smith said.

The expectation, the energy Smith is talking about, is to have the same level of talent, the same level of production even with the revolving door of high-profile recruits becoming impact players on the Ohio State defensive line who eventually end their college career early to pursue an NFL career.

This was the path of Joey Bosa and the path of Nick Bosa, who left the team in October to prepare for the NFL Draft. It will be the path for redshirt junior defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, who announced his Ohio State career would end after the Rose Bowl.

This is the path that enticed Smith to Ohio State, seeing the success of the Bosas and Jones, understanding the past, his role in the present and what his role could be for Ohio State in the near future on the defensive line.

“I know that my time is coming,” Smith said. “I know the older dudes are going to pave a way for me. When they leave here, I just have to pick up where they left off.”

The members of the 2018 defensive line recruits had the opportunity for some playing time this season. Tommy Togiai, Tyler Friday, Taron Vincent, Antwuan Jackson, who is a junior college transfer from Blinn College, and Smith combined for 25 tackles in their first season with the Buckeyes, recording four tackles-for-loss and two sacks, one each from Friday and Vincent respectively.

According to the members of the defensive line who are finishing up their first season with Ohio State, much of the first year is spent watching, observing, learning the Johnson way and being pushed, not necessarily physically, but mentally.

“During spring ball, I was kind of struggling with the plays and stuff,” Togiai said. “[Johnson] just told me one day to go out and go as hard as I can, not thinking about the plays. Ever since then, things started clicking for me.”

Togiai and Smith also found respective role models on the defensive line.

Togiai gravitated towards junior Davon Hamilton and redshirt junior Robert Landers, saying both helped him on and off the field in his transition to nose guard.

Smith found sophomore Chase Young as his example.

“I always watch after him,” Smith said. “He is always telling me what to do, always telling me how to work some moves, stuff like that.”

Smith said Young is relentless after the ball, showing a motor that Smith strives to have one day.

This is the main characteristic of Young’s leadership style: one he said is by example, creating energy from what he can do on the field.

Even with Jones leaving for the NFL, many of the same characters from the end of the 2018 season will remain, giving Young the confidence to say the expectations should be high for the unit in the near future.

“Next year, we are going to be good,” Young said. “We are going to have pretty much our whole defensive line back. You are going to see the same thing.”  

Togiai, who led the 2018 class with two tackles for loss in his first season, gives all the credit to Johnson, who, notably, jumped up and down when the former four-star recruit committed to the Buckeyes in December 2017.

“It’s all an attribute to his teachings, to meeting through the offseason, through the summer and then to my teammates as well teaching me,” Togiai said.

With Johnson at the helm, the expectation remains, especially with a line that will have Young, who led the team with 14.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks, and possibly junior Jonathon Cooper, who had 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks in 2018.

But Smith and Togiai agree. In 2019, the defensive line will be about the defensive linemen recruited in 2018

“I know the freshmen we have now like me, Tommy, Taron, Tyler, myself, I know next year and the year after that, my junior year, we are going to control the d-line,” Smith said. “I know it’s going to be scary for any quarterback next year and the year after that.”

But Smith was not only talking about 2019, but also 2020: his junior season, after which he can first enter the NFL Draft. That is the mindset of these players. It’s not only about success in college, but a level of success in college that leads to a successful professional career.

This is the mindset Johnson preaches to each member of the room, the mentality he sets, the expectation he has.

“[Johnson] tells me by the time I leave here, I’m going to be an All-American,” Smith said. “That’s really in my head. That’s what I’m striving for with everything he is telling me.”

This is the pitch Johnson likely gave Harrison. This is the pitch that continues to bring in that revolving door of talent at the defensive line to Ohio State.

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