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Buckeye breakdown: defensive line

Previewing what Ohio State is bringing on the D-line this fall.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Ohio State Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

If there was one unit the Ohio State Buckeyes have been the most consistent at year in and year out, it would undoubtedly be the defensive line. It seems as though every season in recent memory, the Buckeyes have produced high first round NFL talent along the D-line, and each time they reload with new top prospects. With Nick Bosa the latest to make the jump to the next level, OSU again has the pieces in place to continue to dominate in the trenches.

This time around, the Buckeyes already have a ton of experience playing without their NFL lottery pick, as Bosa played just three games in his final season with the program after injuring his groin against TCU. Led by Chase Young, who many expect to be the next top NFL prospect, Ohio State has three returning starters along the defensive line. Larry Johnson’s unit features a ton of depth, and should compete to be one of the top D-lines in the nation in 2019.

The Starters

The featured player on this year’s Ohio State defensive line will be the aforementioned Chase Young. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, the freakishly athletic defensive end affectionately dubbed “The Predator” could by all measures end up as the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft with a good year in 2019. Despite playing the majority of the season on two bad ankles, Young led the team in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (15.5) as he wreaked havoc in opposing backfields. He also forced two fumbles and batted down five passes.

Lining up at the other end would be Jonathon Cooper, now in his second year as a starter. The 6-foot-4, 257-pound senior has been pegged by many to have a breakout year in 2019 after an underwhelming first two seasons with the Buckeyes. Filling in for the injured Bosa last year, Cooper recorded 25 total tackles, with 2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Cooper was put in a bit of a tough spot, as Ohio State’s original defensive schemes centered around Bosa. However, after a good final stretch last season and an impressive spring, Cooper appears ready to become a big part of the Buckeyes defense off the edge this year.

Up the middle, the Buckeyes will be tasked with replacing the versatile Dre’Mont Jones, taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. However, they are returning starter Robert Landers, who was as good as anyone at disrupting plays and eating up offensive lineman a season ago. Landers is not going to fill up the stat sheet, as most nose tackles won't, but that being said he did still manage to register 25 tackles — five for a loss — and a sack last season despite splitting reps and only playing in early down situations.

Alongside Landers will likely be the man he split carries with a season ago, senior tackle Davon Hamilton. Exactly like Landers, Hamilton only really played on early downs last season, as Ohio State elected to go with four defensive ends as part of its “Rushmen” Package on obvious passing downs. However, Hamilton remains an important fixture along the Buckeyes’ defensive line. He has certainly made an impact on his teammates, as the aforementioned Cooper said he expects Hamilton to be a “future NFL standout” and a “nightmare for opposing [interior linemen]” at Big Ten media days.

The Reserves

As previously mentioned, Ohio State’s defensive line is incredibly deep. This being the case, the starting spots (outside Young) could still very much change after preseason camp. One guy who has a real chance at earning the starting job in practice is Jashon Cornell. The senior lineman started his Buckeye career at defensive tackle before moving to defensive end in 2018. However, with an influx of talent at that position, Cornell has moved back to tackle in hopes of competing for the starting job with Hamilton.

Outside of the players who earn the No. 1 spot at their respective positions on the depth chart, there is still the matter of which group of four guys will make up the Rushmen Package. While Cooper and Young are likely cemented in that role, the two ends that join them are still up in the air. The most likely duo, however, is some combination of Tyreke Smith, Tyler Friday and perhaps even freshman Zach Harrison.

Smith already got some experience in the Rushmen Package a year ago as a true freshman. While he only recorded nine tackles on the season, the additional reps will no doubt help him for a more productive year as a sophomore. Friday, recruited as the No. 4 strong side DE in his class, showed flashes in limited playing time his freshman year, recording his lone sack in the win against Tulane. It would be a bit surprising to see Harrison actually crack into the rotation early on, but if Smith or Friday are underperforming, the five-star defensive end and No. 1 player in Ohio in the 2019 class could be ready to show off his stuff.

Beyond the Rushmen, who will also function as the two-deep guys at defensive end with a normal set on the field, remains the rotation guys at defensive tackle, which will likely comprise of Tommy Togiai and Taron Vincent. Togiai was the No. 3 defensive tackle in the 2018 class, and has already gotten a bunch of reps with the ones in spring. It would not be surprising to see him on the field in more than just garbage time. Vincent was a five-star prospect and No. 1 DT in his class. He appeared in 10 games last season, recording a sack in the Big Ten Championship game. He will also be in the mix for playing time as the season moves along.

Overview

While certain guys will be listed at the top of the depth chart each week, that does not mean they are the only ones who will see the field in key situations. Ohio State loves to rotate guys in and out, and with their incredible depth this season it will allow them to keep guys fresh throughout the game as they look to wear out opposing offensive lines.

Chase Young should be a force this season, and teams will no doubt look to double him early and often, creating opportunities for other guys to make big plays in the backfield. The four-defensive end Rushmen Package will be used frequently on passing downs, and we could even see a few different packages on the field in certain spots so as to utilize as much of their deep roster as possible at any given time.

While guys like Nick Bosa and Dre’Mont Jones have moved on to the next level, in their place is an extremely talented group of guys who, as a whole, could combine to be one of the most dominant and impressive defensive lines in the nation in 2019.