Tyreke Smith dealt with injuries throughout his Ohio State career, especially this past season when he missed three games in the first half of the season. Despite missing the time, he had his best season as a Buckeye with a career-high 26 tackles. He also tied his career highs from 2019 with 3.0 sacks and 5.0 tackles for loss.
Smith saw some time on defense as a true freshman but blossomed as a sophomore in 2019, starting four games that year. In 2020, he had maybe his best-ever performance in the playoff game against Clemson. He was credited with just two tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack, and a forced fumble, but he harassed Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence for most of that Ohio State victory.
Through much of his time at Ohio State, Smith was always on the cusp of making a play. Now that he is off to the Senior Bowl and the NFL, he will hopefully be able to put everything together and have the kind of impact at the next level that he was so close to having in Columbus.
One of the problems in putting Tyreke Smith into a series that looks at possible replacements is that Ohio State is going through a defensive scheme change, especially as it regards the defensive end position.
One of the hot topics since Jim Knowles was hired as the Buckeyes’ new defensive coordinator has been the “Leo” position, which is the name given to Knowles’ weakside defensive end. That defender moves around and requires an additional linebacker skill set at times. So with that in mind, we have to ask if that’s a position that Tyreke Smith would have played at Ohio State. Or would he have been more of a strong-side defensive end? Any answers are purely speculative, which also hinders how accurate this given exercise can be.
Without knowing where Smith would have played and where returning starter Zach Harrison will play next year, it’s pretty difficult to really pigeonhole the options because we don’t even know who the pigeons are at this point.
So, for the sake of ease and mental health, we could just discuss who the candidates are to start alongside Harrison at whichever spot that ends up being. And yes, Zach Harrison is almost assuredly starting somewhere next year.
Right now, the Buckeyes have around 10 defensive ends that they can call upon, but a more realistic number cuts that down to about half that. Zach Harrison has already been mentioned, and for good reason. He has yet to put up the numbers that his recruiting rankings promised, but Jim Knowles’ defense could change all that.
Tyler Friday missed his senior season due to injury but he will be back in 2022 and could factor in as a strongside defensive end. When he’s been healthy, he’s been in the Ohio State defensive end rotation. Unfortunately, last year was not the first time he has dealt with injuries. Javontae Jean-Baptiste is another experienced defensive end who will be entering his fifth year as a Buckeye. He finished third among OSU defensive ends in snaps last year, finishing with 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Is Jean-Baptiste more in the weakside defensive end realm? That’s for Knowles and defensive line coach Larry Johnson to decide.
The Buckeyes have a pair of young pass rushers that everyone will be watching. JT Tuimoloau started a couple of games as a true freshman this past season. He posted 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks. He projects more to the strongside defensive end spot. Classmate Jack Sawyer, however, is the People’s Choice to be Knowles’ first Leo at Ohio State. Sawyer finished 2021 with 13 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks. He also forced a fumble.
Cormontae Hamilton and Jacolbe Cowan are both upperclassmen now and could factor into the mix. The same can be said for Cade Stover, who played tight end last year but started at linebacker in the Rose Bowl. Stover checks a lot of the boxes that a possible Leo would need to handle.
The Buckeyes are also expected to sign three defensive ends in the 2022 class. Caden Curry and Kenyatta Jackson have already signed, while Omari Abor is committed but won’t be signing until February.
Jim Knowles and Larry Johnson will go through a process of figuring out which defensive ends are Leos and which aren’t. They probably already have a very good idea of what that looks like, but they’ll get an even better idea seeing it in action this spring.
Much like the situation at defensive tackle, there are veterans returning at defensive end, but now that they’re playing in a brand-new defense, even the vets are going to need a large number of snaps. Seniors Zach Harrison, Tyler Friday (assuming he’s healthy), and Javontae Jean-Baptiste will be leading the room, while JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer work to show that they can handle any kind of learning curve Knowles wants to throw at them.
This will also be a big spring for guys like Jacolbe Cowan and Cormontae Hamilton to show that they shouldn’t be forgotten. Caden Curry will also be participating in spring ball.
The Best Bet
The Buckeyes are more than likely going to roll with a solid five of Zach Harrison, Tyler Friday, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, JT Tuimoloau, and Jack Sawyer. The snaps among those five will depend on who ends up as a strongside guy and who ends up as a weakside guy.
That doesn’t mean there is no room for anybody else. Keep in mind, all told this group has 21 career sacks between the five of them over 11 total seasons. While you should expect Harrison to be one of the two starters simply because he’s a returning starter, the amount of production would indicate that if somebody can jump out and get into the backfield on a routine basis, the snaps will be found.
This past season, Jim Knowles found room for a true freshman to come off the bench at defensive end and lead the team in tackles for loss and sacks. He would undoubtedly do the same for some deserving sophomore as well.
And don’t be surprised if Tuimoloau and Sawyer are earning more and more time as the season progresses.
We also probably shouldn’t forget about Cade Stover here just quite yet.