Nick Bosa is gone. Jashon Cornell is moving to defensive tackle. Junior Chase Young and senior Jonathon Cooper return as clear starters at defensive end. But the Buckeyes need depth to keep those two fresh.
If Saturday’s Spring Game is any indication, sophomore Tyreke Smith is emerging as option No. 3.
Smith led all defenders with 1.5 sacks, finishing with 3.5 total tackles in the game. Overall, the Ohio native appeared more confident, growing into his new role as a leader in the room.
“Last year I was getting out there like ‘Oh, I don’t know what they’re gonna run,” Smith said. “I feel more comfortable out there, I feel like I can play faster, get off the ball faster.”
Coming in as a four-star prospect, Smith went through the typical first-year learning curve with just nine tackles and zero sacks in 2018.
Moving forward, he knows there’s plenty of strides to make before he finds a larger role next season.
“Trying to hone my technique and just help the unit,” Smith said. “Get some more game-type reps for my guys, go out there and try to get some stops, get a look on how the defense is gonna be.”
Head coach Ryan Day recognizes the importance of a strong third defensive end, particularly in the defense Ohio State will run. The Buckeyes have a history of rotating defensive linemen, a philosophy co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison has said he intends to stick with this season.
That’s why he’s stressed the importance of Smith’s development to the Buckeyes’ veteran defensive linemen. Young in particular said Day told him to take Smith “under his wing.”
“Every chance I get to text Tyreke, or talk to him, try to get some things to work on with him, I’m gonna do it,” Young said. “I want him to be the best player he can be.”
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson is also playing a critical role in Smith’s development.
Johnson holds a track record of developing defensive fronts, producing six NFL draft picks since arriving at Ohio State in 2014. He’s motivating Smith to continue improving.
“I gotta keep pushing, I can’t stop here,” Smith said. “Coach J tells me every day I’ve gotta keep working, just gotta keep going hard, keep going hard, keep using my technique.”
As a whole, Ohio State’s defensive line is working on the mental aspects of football as much as they are the physical this spring. Diagnosing a play and knowing opponent tendencies helps a player gain that extra edge: When you know what’s coming, it’s easier to defend.
“Athletic ability is a lot, but the mental part is a lot of it too,” Smith said. “When you can see a play before it happens, you can see the back on one side, you know it’s gonna be a stretch, that just helps you play faster.”
Young sees Smith as a cog in Ohio State’s defensive line machine this season, one that he hopes will be well-oiled come fall.
“The whole summer we gonna be working, we gonna be grinding,” Young said. “I’ve definitely got a confidence in my D-line.”