Replacing who Ryan Day called the “most dominant player in college football” is no simple task.
With junior defensive end Chase Young unavailable for Maryland, suspended indefinitely for an NCAA violation announced in a press release Friday, that is precisely the task that Day, defensive line coach Larry Johnson and the rest of the Buckeye coaching staff has been handed.
Filling the Heisman Trophy contender’s usual spot on the depth chart for Game 9 are two freshmen defensive ends in five-star Zach Harrison and four-star redshirt Javonate Jean-Baptiste –– both denoted as co-starters for Saturday.
It won’t just be Young’s nation-best 13.5 sacks or his second-most five forced fumbles that Harrison and Jean-Baptiste will look to supplant, but his role as leader and team captain as well, a presence that is also missing from the other end of the defensive line.
Senior defensive end and team captain Jonathon Cooper, a starter opposite Young if healthy, has missed most of the year with a nagging ankle injury, and is once again sidelined for Saturday’s game.
Filling his spot this season has been a combination of Harrison, Jean-Baptiste and sophomores Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday –– the latter two slated in Cooper’s starting slot in the depth chart.
With the way Ohio State’s line rotates, Smith and Friday will join Harrison and Jean-Baptiste in likely all seeing time at either defensive end position.
Johnson has maintained a deep rotation on the defensive line throughout the season, and that fact combined with the dominant nature of Ohio State’s wins — it still hasn’t won a game by less than 24 points — means that the young defensive linemen aren’t inexperienced.
Johnson spoke about the importance of the younger players seeing time after many of them were on the field 30 to 35 plays, according to Johnson, against Florida Atlantic Aug. 31.
“Those are reps that they need to get going forward, because the rest [of the games] may be 15, 20 plays. We don’t know yet,” Johnson said Sept. 3. “I’m really happy where they’re at right now.”
Smith and Friday are the most experienced of the bunch, each having registered a sack this season, though Smith has been plagued with injuries and has missed four games.
“Every great defensive end had that sophomore year, Tyreke Smith can have that year,” Young said in April. “I would say watch out for Tyreke Smith.”
It hasn’t happened yet for Smith, but with Young and Cooper’s status for coming games still in the air, he will have his opportunity.
Harrison may have the most promising future for the Buckeyes, as the 6-foot-6 true freshman was the No. 12 prospect in this year’s recruiting class, and the No. 1 player in Ohio. Harrison has already made his presence felt in his first season in the program, recording 1.5 sacks, 10 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss –– the most of the four backups.
“I think the defensive end position is changing every five years. The longer body types, they almost look like big basketball players now. He has that body type. He has the athleticism,” Day said ahead of the season.
Jean-Baptiste was the No. 6 player out of New Jersey in 2018, and has equalled Harrison’s 1.5 sack total this season. His 14 total tackles are second only to Young’s 29 among defensive ends on the team.
When pressuring the quarterback, Ohio State won’t only rely on the depth at defensive end to replace Chase Young.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Jashon Cornell has mounted 2.5 sacks this season, sliding back inside to three-technique after spending time at defensive end earlier in his career.
Johnson said prior to the season that pressure from the three-technique would be key when Young is double teamed. Now that he’s out, that point could be emphasized further.
“The inside guys have to be really good pass rushers, and that’s been our focus from the day we started end of [this past] season, to get ready for that,” Johnson said Aug. 8.
Even with underclassmen filling Young and Cooper’s starting positions Saturday, Maryland’s 200 yards per game through the air make it the No. 99 passing attack in the nation, and only three Big Ten teams have given up more sacks than the Terrapins on the season.