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You’re Nuts: Which freshman impressed the most against Akron?

The Buckeyes finally got a chance to put a bunch of the young guys on the field against the Zips.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Joshua A. Bickel/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Everybody knows that one of the best parts of being a sports fan is debating and dissecting the most (and least) important questions in the sporting world with your friends. So, we’re bringing that to the pages of LGHL with our favorite head-to-head column: You’re Nuts.

In You’re Nuts, two LGHL staff members will take differing sides of one question and argue their opinions passionately. Then, in the end, it’s up to you to determine who’s right and who’s nuts.

This week’s topic: Which freshman impressed the most against Akron?

Josh’s Take: Tyleik Williams

Gene, I was impressed with all the freshmen who played against Akron. I think Ryan Day should roll out an all-freshman lineup whenever possible! Obviously, that is unrealistic and would be asking for trouble at certain positions, but the young guys looked good against Akron — as they should against a lesser opponent. The opposition does not change the fact that double-digit freshman making a tangible impact is a positive development for a team that has been seeking energy and enthusiasm.

Far too often during Ohio State’s first three games, the sideline looked tight and lifeless. Maybe it was the result of playing tough teams early (and underperforming), but players and coaches didn’t always look like they were having fun out there. By inserting so many freshmen and other young guys into the lineup, it seemed to ratchet up the fun factor. It wasn’t all fun and games when somebody missed as assignment or made a poor decision (looking at you, Mike Hall), but the coaches seemed to really enjoy certain teaching moments throughout the game.

The upper classmen were cheering on their younger teammates, whether they were scoring their first career touchdown or simply playing their first career snaps. The youth movement that kicked off Saturday might be temporary in nature, but the players and coaches appeared to be enjoying themselves — and that is my biggest takeaway from the Akron game.

As far as individual freshmen are concerned, I continue to be impressed with TreVeyon Henderson and Denzel Burke, but I feel like singling out either of them would be cheating. Henderson is going to be the focus of the offense moving forward, and Burke is arguably a top two or three player on the defense. You can take the easy route if you’re so inclined, but I am going to make a case for a less-established player.

Since I am a charter member of the Kyle McCord fan club, I was tempted to rave about his play at quarterback. However, a lot of his stats were padded by receivers gaining yards after the catch, and I don’t feel like Ryan Day really turned him loose. I do believe he is just as talented and capable of leading this team as C.J.Stroud is, but he did nothing to prove it. Stroud deserves the benefit of the doubt until if/when he struggles as a healthy version of himself.

With McCord out of the running, I looked to the other side of the ball… and I didn’t have to look far, because my fab freshman led the Buckeyes in total tackles. I am talking about none other than future All-American, Tyleik Williams. He looked like a man possessed on certain plays on Saturday and made a huge impact along the defensive line. While Williams started to make a name for himself against Tulsa last week, he really showed out against the Zips.

Williams was credited with a team-high six tackles against Akron, four being of the solo variety. He had two fourth quarter sacks and produced one of the defensive highlights of the night, when he nearly put the Zips’ backup quarterback six feet under on the last play of the game. What I like most is that he plays with attitude and energy. He wants to be out there, and he knows he belongs as a freshman.

Williams only lost his black stripe shortly before the Tulsa game, but it’s clear that Larry Johnson wants to get him on the field. It was still a one-score game against the Golden Hurricane when Johnson had the freshman on the field, and his faith was rewarded with a big third-down sack against Davis Brin. In the absence of Taron Vincent and others up front against Akron, it seemed inevitable that Williams was going to see the field plenty — and I thought he might start.

Williams getting the start was not meant to be, and credit to Antwuan Jackson and Jerron Cage — they were solid up front. That being said, Williams was the second-best defensive tackle on the field against the Zips. He and Haskell Garrett combined for 11 tackles and five sacks, and those two set the tone for the rest of the defense. I have said for weeks that defensive improvement needed to start with the line. The poor rushing defense and lack of pressure — from a unit that we all expected to thrive — put undue pressure on the inexperienced back seven. I don’t think it’s a total coincidence that Williams’ insertion into the lineup has resulted in better play up front.

First and foremost, Williams has the strength to bang with Big Ten offensive linemen, despite being a true freshman. He got to Ohio State and tipped the scales at 340 pounds, before Coach Mick worked his magic. Now down to 315-320, he still plays with the same physicality of a larger human. He also appears more explosive. Maybe I have developed a football crush on Williams, but the jump he gets off the snap is almost violent. He takes the action to an opposing lineman, whereas I think Jackson, Cage, and Vincent absorb the first blow.

Williams led the Buckeyes in tackles against Akron, and I think it is only the beginning. He has three sacks through two games in which he was a rotational piece. He has yet to start a game, but I think his impact has been felt more than any other defensive lineman not named Haskell Garrett. That includes Zach Harrison, J.T. Tuimoloau, and others. He might be the next Garrett — and if they spend more time on the field together, I think it bodes very well for Ohio State’s defense moving forward.

Gene’s Take: Jack Sawyer

I have no qualms with Josh’s pick of Tyleik Williams, and if he hadn’t stolen him before I could I also would have likely chosen the breakout performance by the freshman defensive tackle. Like Josh, I think it would be cheating to choose either TreVeyon Henderson or Denzel Burke. Henderson looks like a truly special talent at running back that will lead this offense for the next few years and probably get his name into the Heisman Trophy running sooner rather than later, and Burke appears to be this team’s top cover guy in the secondary. Overall, Ohio State’s young guns have shined.

Instead, I'm going to go with a guy who had a smaller impact on the game as a whole, but flashed some of the abilities we had heard about throughout his recruiting process and during spring camp when the hype train for the five-star defensive end really took off. I am talking, of course, about Jack Sawyer.

Ohio State brought in a pair of five-star defensive ends this offseason in Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau. Funny enough, Sawyer was the very first member of the Buckeyes’ 2021 class, and Tuimoloau was the very last member and only got himself on campus a few short months ago. Surprisingly enough, it is Tuimoloau that has seen the bigger share of playing time of the two, likely as a result of him being larger in size upon stepping foot in Columbus (275 pounds compared to Sawyer at 250, both listed at 6-foot-4), and while Tuimoloau was the higher-rated of the two in the 247Sports Composite rankings, it was Sawyer who garnered the most attention in the preseason.

It is worth mentioning that while Sawyer has gotten a lot of love from the coaches and media during spring camp, he also did not play his senior year of high school football, opting out to focus on prepping for his collegiate career, so that also could play a role in him not seeing the field as often as we had expected. Tuimoloau, to his own credit, has looked really good in his limited snaps behind starters Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith, but with Smith out on Saturday night and the game being well out of reach in the second half, we finally got a good look at the type of talent Sawyer can be.

Sawyer actually played the most snaps of any defensive end against Akron with 37, according to PFF, just ahead of Tuimoloau (35) and Harrison (32). He was the only Ohio State end to register a sack in the game, with the Buckeyes’ other eight sacks coming from their tackles — Tyleik Williams and Haskell Garrett combining for five on their own. Sawyer’s PFF grade of 71.7 was also the second-highest of any OSU defensive end in the game, behind only Harrison at 75.6 (Garrett led all OSU defensive players at 90.6). For his first bit of significant action, albeit against an overmatched team, Sawyer faired exceptionally well.

Like I said earlier, Williams obviously had a far greater impact on the game than Sawyer did, but I was impressed by Sawyer and what his was able to show in an increased role. Many expected this guy to be one of Ohio State’s best defensive lineman even as a freshman in 2021, with many a comparison to former Buckeye stud Nick Bosa. He isn’t quite there yet but I think we saw a few flashes of just how special this guy can be.

Much like Josh alluded to in his section, Ohio State would likely fare well with a youth movement across the board, and I think they should give a look to starting some of these freshmen up front. A defensive line of Tuimoloau, Garrett, Williams and Sawyer would probably do a great bit of damage against almost any offensive line they go up against, and with some of the veterans on this team struggling to create pressure up front, maybe its time to unleash the full potential of your star first-year blue-chippers.