[This is the fifth in a series discussing each of Ohio State’s key departures and how the Buckeyes will look to replace them. Up next, defensive end Jonathon Cooper.]
Jonathon Cooper was one of the top defensive ends in the 2016 recruiting class and by the time his career was over, he was one of the top defensive ends in college football as well. Arriving at Ohio State in the same class as Nick Bosa and one year earlier than Chase Young, Cooper was simultaneously overlooked while also carrying expectations that should have been Bosa and Young’s alone.
Instead, Cooper’s career was measured against two of the best to ever wear the Scarlet and Gray. While the statistics may have not been there, it was Cooper starting opposite Bosa in 2018 and not Young. He started 13 games that season. His 2019 was cut short and he only played in four games before redshirting. As a redshirt senior in 2020, he earned Second-Team All-American accolades from the American Football Coaches Association.
Cooper is one of the rare Buckeyes — and maybe ONLY Buckeye — with at least one sack in five-straight years. He finished his career with 77 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, and 10 sacks, but his presence and performance was about much more than just statistics. He was a trusted captain and leader for the Buckeyes, as evidenced when he became the inaugural recipient of the Block O jersey prior to the 2020 season.
Replacing Cooper will mean finding somebody who not only does everything correctly, but leads his teammates each step of that way. The good news for the Buckeyes is that they return a sizable number of defensive ends, as well as defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
The Buckeyes could have 10 defensive ends on the roster this coming season, which gives them plenty of options. Rising seniors Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday have been around for a while now and both have a handful of starts to their credit. Rising juniors Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste were the other two members of Ohio State’s 5-man rotation at defensive end in 2020. Harrison [pictured below] led the group with 4.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in his seven games last season.
Cormontae Hamilton and Noah Potter played sparingly as redshirt freshmen in 2020, while true freshmen Darrion Henry-Young and Jacolbe Cowan played even less. Cowan was listed as unavailable for most — if not all — of the season. Henry-Young did notch his only sack and TFL of the season in the opener against Nebraska. Both Cowan and Henry-Young came in as possible defensive tackles, and that may still eventually be the case, but neither were big enough or strong enough to take on those duties last year and it would be a bit of a surprise if they’re ready to do so in 2021.
The Buckeyes have welcomed in arguably the top recruit of 2021 in defensive end Jack Sawyer, who is already enrolled. Sawyer — who is ESPN’s No. 1 recruit — brings in the same kind of expectations as the Bosas and Chase Young. Ohio State is also the favorite to bring in another top defensive end in JT Tuimoloau, who is the No. 1 player according to 247Sports. Tuimoloau is a member of the 2021 class, but is hoping to take visits in the spring before finally choosing a school.
Tyreke Smith [pictured below], Tyler Friday, Zach Harrison, and Javontae-Jean Baptiste will be the leaders of this unit and all four of them have starting experience. That’s great for the program, but it may congest the development of younger players in the program this spring. None of the four names listed above are established to the point where they can forego a large number of reps this spring, but they are all experienced enough to give up some.
There will be five other unproven defensive ends looking to do as much to prove themselves as possible. In their small number of reps, they will need to make an impression that earns them more opportunities. The biggest question marks will be the first- and second-year players in Cowan, Henry-Young, and Sawyer. Everybody else is heading into at least their third year in the program and there isn’t as much mystery there. This is a brand new opportunity for the three youngest members of the defensive end room and so Johnson will want a good, long look at them if possible.
The Buckeyes had five defensive ends who were accustomed to playing at least 30 snaps a game last year and Jonathon Cooper is the only guy they lose from that group. They showed that while it wasn’t easy, it was possible to play five defensive ends a decent number of snaps in a game. When all five were healthy, it was usually Javontae Jean-Baptiste who got the short shrift, however.
There will be room for a fifth member of the rotation this year should one step up. Especially when you consider the difficulty in staying healthy that a couple of these guys have had. In 2017, Johnson was able to sprinkle in Cooper and Chase Young with the regular rotation of Nick Bosa, Jalyn Holmes, Tyquan Lewis, and Sam Hubbard. Cooper and Young weren’t necessarily members of the rotation, but Johnson found time for them.
With Smith, Friday, Harrison, and Jean-Baptiste being the likely four-man rotation in 2021, can Johnson find room for a couple of other talented options? He’s done it before and would be more than happy to do it again.
Ohio State will need stars to emerge here in 2021. There will be some who tell you that Tyreke Smith did that toward the end of 2020. With Zach Harrison still getting better and the experience of the group overall, the Buckeyes will once again have the best group of defensive ends in the Big Ten. If they can get a boost from a couple of younger guys, they may end up with the best group in the nation.