Now that spring football is over, it’s time to look back at exactly what we just saw. We’ll finish going over each position group this weekend, discussing what was learned and what still needs to happen for the Buckeyes. Up next will be the Ohio State defensive ends.
Quick Position Overview
The Buckeyes return four defensive ends with starting experience, led by senior Zach Harrison and his 17.5 career tackles for loss and 9.5 career sacks. Fifth-year seniors Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Tyler Friday are both back as well. Friday missed last season due to injury. Sophomores JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer were arguably the top two defensive ends in the 2021 class and both had their moments over the past year. Three true freshmen will increase the depth here as well. This should be a position of strength, especially in new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles’ defense.
Expectations Going In
The expectations going into the spring were that seniors Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste would lead the way for a relatively unproven group of underclassmen all around them. Sophomores Jack Sawyer and JT Tuimoloau were expected to continue to improve and challenge for more responsibilities. True freshman Caden Curry was expected to make enough plays to get folks excited. And the third- and fourth-year guys like Jacolbe Cowan and Noah Potter needed to fight to keep from being forgotten.
Reality Coming Out
Jacolbe Cowan and Noah Potter both hit the transfer portal, which wasn’t much of a surprise. Playing time was going to be difficult and they both saw the writing on the wall. Other than that, things went about as expected. There was a lot of talk about who the “Leo” would be this spring, but defensive coordinator Jim Knowles eliminated much of that discussion by saying there would essentially be no Leo this spring and until that position can be “the king of the jungle” and handle all of the different aspects of what is needed, they were sticking with the label of the less-demanding “Jack” for their weakside defensive end position. Jack Sawyer, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Caden Curry, Mitchell Melton, and Palaie Gaoteote were among the players who repped there in the spring. Overall, however, things are still in a flux. In the depth chart listed below, things are not broken down between strongside and weakside because that will solidify more in camp. And it may not ever actually be solid. Plus, the top five should probably all be considered starters since they will all be part of the constant rotation.
Redshirt sophomore Mitchell Melton moved from linebacker to defensive end and was making a mark at the Jack spot before tearing an ACL in the spring game. It wasn’t necessarily a huge surprise that he moved given that this defense doesn’t need as many linebackers as it used to, but anytime a player shows up at a different position than the one he was playing the last time you saw him, it’s always a bit of a surprise. Melton had really taken to the position and Jim Knowles spoke very highly of the work he was doing in the spring.
Can the seniors produce more than just leadership? Tyler Friday missed last season due to a torn ACL in the summer and was held out this spring as he continues preparing for the season. He has grown as a leader and talked this spring about how much his football IQ has increased. Javontae Jean-Baptiste is one of the more entertaining players on social media, but over the final five games of last season he only played five more snaps on defense than freshman JT Tuimoloau. Jean-Baptiste got the start in the spring game, which is still an indication of his status with defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Zach Harrison, meanwhile, has heard all about the expectations that people have had for him. This is his senior season and many of those expectations are no longer present from some people because they are ready to move on. Harrison, on the other hand, is ready to move forward. This is his contract year.
So Now What?
So now the guys who want to grow into a Leo get back to work on knowing the defense like Jim Knowles needs. The position calls for pre-snap movement, recognition, some linebacker skills, the strength of a defensive end, and a desire to create havoc. That wasn’t all going to happen in a spring, but they will try to get there by this fall. If true freshman Collin Oliver was able to get it done last year at Oklahoma State, then the Buckeyes should be fine here by the end of fall camp.
While the Buckeyes seem to have plenty of talent at defensive end, it’s going to be hard work for Larry Johnson to find quality snaps for the five guys we all expect to play. Only three times last year was Ohio State able to get more than 20 snaps for four different defensive ends in a game — and one of those instances was the Akron “game.” Never did they get 20 snaps from five guys in a game. It could be argued that Johnson didn’t always have five guys that he could trust last year due to random injuries and youth. There were 15 times when a defensive end played 45 or more snaps in a game last year, which is more than Johnson wants. On average there are 140 snaps for defensive ends in each game, and that’s not even including the passing downs when the DEs slide inside. With everybody healthy and the youth one year older, snaps shouldn’t be so easy to hoard for the veterans.
Are We Sure?
Are we sure we’re not setting ourselves up for disappointment when it comes to the expectations that we have for JT Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer? You’re sure? Positive? Okay. Me too.
“He didn’t have a whole offseason. He didn’t even have a summer. 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.” — Ryan Day on JT Tuimoloau’s freshman season and what is to come.
|9 Zach Harrison | Senior | 6-6 272|
|Few defensive ends in Ohio State history have approached Zach Harrison’s athletic abilities, and in his final season as a Buckeye he will be looking to exceed the lofty expectations he arrived with.|
|8 Javontae Jean-Baptiste | Redshirt Senior | 6-5 255 OR|
|Javontae Jean-Baptiste posted 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 tackles as a part of OSU’s defensive end rotation last year. He has six career starts, including three starts in 2021.|
|44 JT Tuimoloau | Sophomore | 6-4 272 OR|
|JT Tuimoloau arrived later than most true freshmen last year but still posted 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks. He even started the fourth and fifth games of the season last year. Huge upside.|
|33 Jack Sawyer | Sophomore | 6-4 260 OR|
|Jack Sawyer enrolled early last year and made a splash in the spring. He played the fifth-most snaps among DEs last year, posting 11 tackles and three sacks. Has continued to get bigger and stronger.|
|54 Tyler Friday | Redshirt Senior | 6-3 264|
|Tyler Friday has dealt with injuries his entire career. He missed all of last season and redshirted. He has four career starts and three career sacks. But when he was healthy, he was very much in the rotation.|
|92 Caden Curry | Freshman | 6-3 250|
|Caden Curry was the only freshman defensive end to enroll early and he impressed teammates and coaches with his tenacity and performance. He should see more than four games this year.|
|21 Palaie Gaoteote | Redshirt Senior | 6-2 248|
|Palaie Gaoteote got some work this spring at Jim Knowles’ “Jack/Leo” rush end position. He is also working at the Sam linebacker spot. Will he see more time at DE following Mitchell Melton’s injury?|
|20 Mitchell Melton | Redshirt Sophomore | 6-3 245 | INJ|
|Mitchell Melton made the move from linebacker to defensive end this spring and he was already making waves. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL in the spring game and will likely miss the season.|
|NA Kenyatta Jackson | Freshman | 6-5 235 OR|
|Kenyatta Jackson has the kind of frame you want out of a defensive end. He has room to grow and the athleticism to put it all to good use. He will arrive in the summer and work to find a role on defense.|
|NA Omari Abor | Freshman | 6-4 240|
|It is going to be difficult for Omari Abor or Kenyatta Jackson to see more than four games this year, especially since neither enrolled early. This is a deep position and it is heavy in seniors and experience.|