Last year, freshman defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau arrived in Columbus a couple of weeks before Ohio State began fall camp, which is generally not how the Buckeye coaches like their rookies to show up.
Tuimoloau’s recruitment was well-covered last year and took longer than most to settle. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day even discussed with Tuimoloau’s family that the longer it takes him to arrive, the lower they may want to set their expectations for his freshman impact.
Tuimoloau didn’t necessarily set out to prove his head coach a liar, but he certainly wanted to show that even though he arrived late, it was still early enough for him to make noise as a first-year player.
Even with his late arrival and abbreviated offseason learning program with defensive line coach Larry Johnson, Tuimoloau ended up playing the fourth-most snaps among the Ohio State defensive ends last year. He finished with 17 tackles, which was third among defensive ends. His 4.5 tackles for loss were also third among defensive ends, and his 2.5 sacks were only one-half sack away from tying for most among defensive ends.
It was a very good year for a true freshman. It was even better when you consider how little preparation he had before the Silver Bullets started flying.
“He didn’t have a whole offseason. He didn’t even have a summer,” Ryan Day said. “That’s probably one of the more unique ones we’ve had, although we’ve had a few in the last couple years. But he got here a week before training camp. And that was one of the concerns we shared with his family was that if you show up at the end of July, you’re not gonna have a lot of time to prepare to get on the field. All you’re gonna have is August, and that’s really hard.
“To his credit, he got on the field and played despite not having that lead-up time, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. So it says a lot about him. But now he’s had a whole offseason – well, he hasn’t had a whole offseason, but he’s had seven weeks of winter conditioning, training. He’s gotten stronger. And now he’s kind of diving into the spring practice. So I think as we head into August, it’ll be a whole year of work under his belt: the season and offseason, a spring, May and June, the summer, and I think he’ll look a lot different.”
But it’s also not like Tuimoloau was taking it easy and enjoying a relaxing summer. He owns a calendar and understood that his process had gone on longer than most. His family made a plan and stuck to it, which included making sure he stayed in shape and prepared for camp with his own offseason program. That plan allowed him to be ready to hit the ground running, but it was his upbringing that allowed him to be ready to hit everything else.
“I was just taught from a young age, from my grandpa and my dad,” Tuimoloau explained. “I always tell the story that I go to regular high school games and I think I’m just there to watch and have fun and watch football and my grandpa pulls me to the side and quizzes me on every defense a team runs and tells me the reason they’re running it. So coming here, putting in the extra work with Coach J and the defensive staff and learning from the older guys too, they played a big part as well. Those aspects of my life and those role models for me just helped me get acclimated quickly.”
Tuimoloau has taken advantage of all of the help that people have been willing to give him and the byproduct is becoming more and more tangible. Last year had its struggles, but that also means it had its teachings. Tuimoloau has been hungry to learn and get better, and Larry Johnson has been there to keep him well fed.
This is all still a new experience, but it won’t be much longer. And when that happens, don’t be surprised when Tuimoloau once again exceed expectations.
“I think having a whole season, playing a game, getting all the freshmen jitters out, now I know what it feels like to play in the Shoe or play in a different stadium,” Tuimoloau said. “After having that whole season, it’s just like, ‘Okay, now we know what to expect. Let’s get better. And let’s keep grinding every day.'”