The Ohio State defense entered 2020 with some questions about the interior of their defensive line. After losing three fifth-year senior defensive tackles in DaVon Hamilton, Robert Landers, and Jashon Cornell, the Buckeyes were going to finally have to turn things over to the guys who had spent the last few years behind those three stalwarts.
What could have been a weakness quickly turned into a strength with Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett. Both players were at the top of a fairly deep group of interior defenders who excelled at stopping the run. Together, they helped Ohio State become the sixth-ranked run defense in the nation.
The season went so well that Togiai – a junior — opted to leave a year early by putting his name into the 2021 NFL Draft. Losing Togiai was always a possibility, but the departure will still be felt heavily this coming season.
Things could have been much worse for Ohio State’s 2021 interior had Garrett and fifth-year senior tackle Antwuan Jackson decided to leave as well. Instead, both chose to use the extra year of eligibility provided by the NCAA and come back for another season with the Buckeyes. And when they did, they made head coach Ryan Day very happy.
“Yeah, yeah, wish Tommy nothing but the best, certainly. I wish we had him back, but really excited that Haskell and Antwuan are back,” Day said recently. “I thought they played really well. I mean, that was, as you know, one of the concerns going into the season was just ‘what is that going to look like in there?’ Then Haskell took the next step.”
Garrett was backed up by Taron Vincent, who is now headed into his senior season with the Buckeyes. Jackson and Jerron Cage will be two of the guys likely replacing Togiai in 2021. There are also some younger guys like Jaden McKenzie and Ty Hamilton who will continue progressing. Ohio State has also signed a pair of very talented defensive tackles in Mike Hall and Tyleik Williams. Day already mentioned that he’s been impressed by Williams in winter workouts.
The Buckeyes will have some options next season. Many of those options will be fourth- and fifth-year guys who are still getting better, and they will then show the younger players how things are done.
“I still think that Haskell has got a lot of area to grow,” Day said. “I mean he really came on the scene quickly this year. So now with another whole season of preparation, I think he could be one of the better inside defensive tackles in the country going into next year. And Antwuan played much better this year.
“I thought our defensive tackles played strong. And I think that we’re going to have some good depth there. Going to help some of the younger guys that need to come on. Some guys who were injured there, going to have to step up. And then we’ll have a couple young guys coming in here in the summer, that hopefully can battle for some time.”
And yet while having all of those new and different names involved might sound exciting, having Haskell Garrett back once again is exactly the kind of calming influence a coach loves. If you think about it, Garrett had arguably the most incredible year for a Buckeye in program history. Not because of statistics or spectacular plays, but because of circumstance.
After three years as a reserve, he was finally slated to be a starter up front. Before the season began, however, he suffered a gunshot to the face and somehow walked away. All he did after that was return remarkably quickly and then play so well that he will now have a tree planted in Buckeye Grove because he earned First-Team All-America recognition.
Rather than strike while the iron was hot and head for the NFL, Garrett chose to keep his steel in the fires in preparation for one last run with the Buckeyes.
“But you think about Haskell’s situation, you don’t know this, but he had COVID early in the summer, and he had his issue where he was out for a while before the season, and so there was really no lead up into the season,” Day said. “And then he still played the way he did, to have also done a good job of leadership, being strong for our guys. He and Antwuan, really happy to have those guys back. Not only as football players but as leaders.”