Last season, the Buckeye defensive line was one of the most feared positional units in the nation as they played a key role for Ohio State’s top-ranked defense.
With the losses of standout defensive end Chase Young and tackles DaVon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell and Robert Landers to the NFL and graduation, the Ohio State defense will be without key figures in its front. With rotational pieces from last season and their youth, the Buckeyes will look to retool their defensive line without skipping a beat.
“They’ve earned their right to be where they’re at and get a chance to play in the NFL,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson said on an April 22 conference call with the media. “It’s just now you hope you recruited well enough that you have the next guy ready to go.”
The vaunted 2019 Ohio State defensive line helped the Buckeye defense lead the nation in both sacks and tackles-for-loss. Plenty of that production came from Young, who broke Ohio State’s single season sack record with 16.5 sacks and added 21 tackles-for-loss.
Despite losing Young, the Ohio State defensive end rotation remains strong with pieces that played a significant role for last year’s defense.
Sophomore defensive end Zach Harrison is expected to step up and fill the production void left by Young. He put together a strong freshman campaign as he played in all 14 games last year and tallied 24 tackles, five tackles-for-loss and four sacks.
Linebackers coach Al Washington said he saw plenty of improvement in Harrison as the season went on last year and that his role has the potential to grow this season.
“From game one to game whatever, you saw a guy fundamentally grow.” Washington said on an April 22 conference call with the media. “I think, in time, his role is going to grow fast because not only does he have the talent, he has the drive and the passion.”
Johnson said that Harrison has the opportunity to grow into a player that produces similarly to Young and his predecessors Nick and Joey Bosa.
“We saw a guy that has a really incredible work ethic and when you see that, you know a guy has a chance,” Johnson said. “You got Chase [Young] in front of him as a role model and to see how you’re supposed to do it and be professional on the field, I think that helps. I think the sky is the limit for Zach.”
Another impact player at defensive end is graduate senior Jonathon Cooper, who played in just four games last season due to an ankle injury before redshirting. He produced six tackles and a sack in those four games.
Cooper is not only a solid contributor on the field but also one of the leading voices in the Ohio State locker room as he served as a captain for the 2019 season. Johnson said that Cooper’s experience, work ethic and resilience will help him bounce back from his injury-riddled 2019 season.
“Coop is a warrior. If you look in the dictionary and find warrior, you’re going to find Coop’s name beside it,” Johnson said. “We’re looking for great things for Cooper. He’s a guy you’re rooting for all the time because he deserves the best because of how much time and effort he puts into really making himself a great football player.”
Junior defensive ends Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday and redshirt sophomore Javontae Jean-Baptise round out the talented rotation. Smith tallied five tackles-for-loss and three sacks in 11 games last season, while Friday added three tackles-for-loss and two sacks in 11 games.
Jean-Baptise played in all 14 games as a redshirt freshman last season, tallying 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles-for-loss and a sack.
Despite Young receiving much of the praise a season ago, Johnson said that the group works best as a unit and that it goes deeper than just one guy.
“It’s not just one guy,” Johnson said. “It’s two or three guys that have to have great years.”
Despite losing three key rotational pieces to the draft, the Buckeye interior remains one of the most experienced units on the team.
Senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett brings the most experience to the rotation as he has played in 33 games for the Buckeyes, while his potential starting counterpart, junior Tommy Togiai, adds 26 games played. Rotation players such as redshirt junior Jerron Cage and redshirt sophomore Taron Vincent also eclipse double-digit games played in their Buckeye careers.
Togiai and Garrett both played key roles on the interior rotation in 2019 as Togiai put up 16 tackles and two tackles-for-loss in 14 games. Garrett had similar production in 11 games, as he finished with 10 tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss.
Ohio State will also get Vincent back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him all of last season and forced him to redshirt. Johnson said that it was upsetting that Vincent missed out on having the spring to get back to playing shape but he was pleased with the way his rehab was going.
“It’s tough he missed those reps since we won’t get them back,” Johnson said. “I was really pleased that he returned from his rehab well. I think our staff did a great job getting him ready.”
While Young’s headline-grabbing production will not be returning for the 2020 season, the Buckeyes have the personnel to continue the dominant momentum from the 2019 campaign.
“We have the mentality of next man up, so that’s what we try to preach and teach,” Johnson said.