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Column: With Ohio State returning majority of production on DL, expectations for improvement should be high

Larry Johnson’s group did not meet expectations in 2021, but all the returning production stats should lead to a resurgence in 2022 for his position group.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last year was a forgettable year for the Ohio State Buckeyes’ defense, which led to serious staff turnover. The only coach on the defensive staff who was retained is Larry Johnson, who would be the first to tell you he and his unit did not meet their usual lofty expectations. With returning experience in place and young emerging stars on the rise, expectations for the defensive line should be high.

With Jim Knowles now in charge as the defensive coordinator, Johnson will have help with Knowles’ philosophy and structure in place. This position group will be led by seniors in former five-stars Taron Vincent and Zach Harrison, but the success will likely depend on how big of a step Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau, and Tyliek Williams take. The talent at Knowles and Johnson’s disposal is not lacking, and will set the tone for the rest of the defense’s success.

The defensive line can alter games if they can rush the passer and maintain their gap integrity in the run game, which will allow the rest of the defense to attack like Knowles wants. That is why the emergence of this group is arguably the most vital for the success of Ohio State this season.

Returning Production

Ohio State returns 67.1 percent of their snaps from 2021 on the defensive line from last year, which is a solid place to start. The biggest losses in regards to snap count were multi-year starter Haskell Garrett at defensive tackle and defensive end Tyreke Smith, who accounted for 24.8 percent themselves. Replacing those two players should have a natural succession plan with Tuimoloau and Sawyer taking more of Smith’s, and Garrett’s should be distributed to other three techniques that might not have had as significant of roles last year.

When we look at the stats the story is relatively the same, with the returning players holding the greater percentage of returning production. In the chart below, we see that the defensive line is returning over 60 percent of its production in every major statistical category from last season.

Ohio State Returning Defensive Line Production

Player Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk
Player Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk
Zach Harrison 18 7 25 6 2
J.T. Tuimoloau 7 10 17 4.5 3.5
Tyleik Williams 10 6 16 6.5 5
Ty Hamilton 6 7 13 2 2
Jerron Cage 5 7 12 4 1
Javontae Jean-Baptiste 7 5 12 2 1.5
Jack Sawyer 8 3 11 3 3
Jaden McKenzie 2 3 5 0 0
Cormontae Hamilton 3 1 4 1 1
Michael Hall Jr. 1 1 2 0.5 0
TOTAL 67 50 117 29.5 19
RETURNING % 64.40% 57.50% 61.30% 64.10% 63.30%
via sports-reference.com

Despite the pass rush numbers being down from previous years, returning this much experience and playing in a better scheme should help improve the production of this group in 2022. In the chart, we can see that the veterans did not live up to expectations last season, and if they do not improve, Knowles has been open about starting new people.

The incentive of improvement should be enough for the young players, but the older players will need to step up if this group is going to be dominant. According to ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Ohio State returns 82% of its total defensive production, which was the highest of the top-7 teams from last season. Despite returning a lot of their production, this group will still need to improve, and this year there will be no excuses for similar production with all of the returning experience.

Scheme

One of the main reasons this unit should improve is that Jim Knowles’ scheme relies on an aggressive philosophy. The Buckeyes will not be lining up in their base 4-2-5 and playing straight up in 2022, which will take a lot of pressure of this group. With Knowles’ emphasis on the safeties getting involved in outside run fits, the linebackers blitzing, and changing gap responsibilities, teams won’t be able to plan their blocking schemes as easily.

In the pass rushing aspect, the Buckeyes will be blitzing more, and with coverage disguises this should also create some confusion, allowing for some sacks as well as pass break ups. If Ohio State can increase their pressure rate and sack numbers, there will be less sustained drives as well as less third down conversions.

In 2021 Ohio State gave up 42.16% of third down tries, which ranked 92nd in the country. By improving in the run game and creating effective pressure in the passing game, the Buckeyes’ defense should be able to get off the field more in 2022. This starts up front, and if the Buckeyes want to improve in this category, defensive line play will be the difference.

Scheme is not the entire answer, but this is a place to start. C.J. Stroud said it himself when talking about how few looks the defense gave him in practice in 2021, and we saw the end results against the two best opponents on the schedule last year. With a pressure test in week one against Notre Dame’s offensive line, we will have some answers here early.

Depth

With returning production, we see outstanding depth in place in that regard. But the reason this group should be better off in this area in 2022 is the maturity of their freshmen contributors. Sawyer, Tuimoloau, and Williams all have a year under their belts and an offseason to improve upon their weaknesses. Combining that with the veterans in Harrison, Vincent, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, and Jerron Cage gives you a solid floor.

The depth should also improve with Michael Hall and Ty Hamilton getting another year in the offseason program. Despite playing in low pressure situations, these two have established themselves as players who will be expected contributors as well. With these nine players looking to play key roles and being a high percent of returning production, Ohio State’s worst case scenario should be better than last season.

Ohio State’s 2022 recruiting class should also add to this depth, with a collection of four-star recruits who should add depth immediately. This group includes early enrollees in Caden Curry, Omari Abor, Kenyatta Jackson, and Hero Kanu showing up in fall camp. Curry’s versatility, especially, makes him a player who can vie for early playing time at multiple positions.

The depth when you look at just these 13 players should give Larry Johnson and Jim Knowles plenty of options to choose from. On paper, this is arguably one of the most talented and experienced groups LJ has had since the 2019 playoff run.

Conclusion

Given the returning depth and production, the expectations for the defensive line should be high in this upcoming season. With fall camp on the horizon, this is a position group that can make or break this season for the Buckeyes. In football, the game starts at the line of scrimmage, and a dominant defensive line can change games (see: 2021 Georgia).

If the Buckeyes want to have a nationally dominant defense, they will either need a player to become a game wrecker in the way of the Bosa brothers and Young, or they will need to be successful by committee, like the shortened 2020 season. More than likely it will need to be the latter, especially early in the season, with Notre Dame and Wisconsin on the schedule in the first four games.

This group did not meet expectations last year, and the defensive suffered for it. There are more than one factor you can blame, but in 2022 improvement will be necessary if Ohio State wants to compete for a national title. Despite young talent, the youth movement and the elder statesmen will need to work together to dominate.

This group can change their legacy and if they do, Ohio State’s defense can return to dominance.