Every day for the entirety of the Ohio State football season, we will be asking and answering questions about the team, college football, and anything else on our collective minds of varying degrees of importance. If you have a question that you would like to ask, you can tweet us @LandGrant33 or if you need more than 280 characters, send an email HERE.
Today’s Ask LGHL question is a good one and gets at the heart of a lot of the concerns that people have for the Buckeyes’ defense this season.
What are the snap count expectations for JTT and Sawyer? Are they essentially starter level contributors or role players— Zach Connor (@ZachC03) August 12, 2022
I think that a lot of Ohio State fans would be surprised to know that the Buckeyes finished third in the Big Ten last season in terms of sacks. Now that doesn’t sound too bad, but with just 36 sacks, that breaks down to 2.77 per game over their 13-game season, putting them at 34th nationally; which is aggressively fine.
Additionally, Pro Football Focus had OSU as the 23rd best-rated defense in the country last season when it came to pressure; again, that’s fine, but a very nebulous number and rating.
Both rankings are respectable-ish, but it just never felt as though the Buckeyes were a serious threat to cause chaos in an opposing backfield last year. Sure, they would blow up a play here or there, but gone was the feeling that OSU’s edge rushers could bend an offense to their will on any snap.
Again, their Big Ten and national rankings were fine, but they were a far cry from where the Buckeyes were just a few years ago when they led the country in sacks (54) and pressure rating in 2019. Of course, that was the season that Chase Young absolutely obliterated every offensive line that dared stand between him and a quarterback, but even acknoeldging that you won’t have a Chase Young every season (although at a place like Ohio State, you absolutely should), the fall off has been rather precipitous, and it has shown not only in Ohio State’s sack totals, but also in how the rest of their defense has performed.
The line sets the tone for how all of the defenders play behind it, and without the front four getting legitimate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the weaknesses at the linebacking and secondary levels were exploited; and we all know how a sub-optimal defense essentially ended OSU’s national championship hopes last year (and basically in three of the last four seasons).
So, while improving on the underwhelming LB and DB performances of recent years should be jobs No. 1 and 2 for new defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, defensive line coach Larry Johnson needs to figure out how to get the most out of an extremely talented group up front if the Buckeyes want to make the most of their unbelievably explosive offense this fall.
To Zach’s question, based on all of the reports from practices thus far, it sounds like J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer are repping with the first and second team on nearly every drill. Zach Harrison is almost always lined up opposite one of the sophomore phenoms with the 1s, making me think that he will be penciled in as a starter throughout the season — barring anything unforeseen.
Of course, given how Johnson likes to rotate guys in and out on the line, as Zach’s question alludes to, who technically gets the start doesn’t matter as much as who gets the most snaps. Believe it or not, Harrison graded out as the best defensive end when it came to applying pressure last year according to PFF; 7.8 points over Sawyer.
Of course, pressure is all well and good, but unless you are getting your hands on the quarterback and taking him to the ground, it is not nearly as impactful as the stats would indicate. All season long, it felt like Harrison was a half step away — a half second slow — from completely lighting up the QB.
Reports from inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center suggest that he has added an extra gear and has an added air of tenacity in his game thus far. this fall So, if he has found a way to close that half-second gap, there is potential for Harrison to finally live up to the lofty expectations that he came to campus with.
But, Sawyer and Tuimoloau definitely feel like they are ready to take the second-year jump that we became accustomed to from the last crop of dominant Buckeye edge rushers.
Joey Bosa went from 7.5 sacks during his freshman year to 13.5 as a sophomore, Nick Bosa went from 7 to 16, Young went from 5 to 14.5. Of course Young was the only one from that trio to improve upon his sophomore numbers during his third season, jumping all the way up to 21 in that incredible 2019 season; Joey and Nick dropped to 5 and 6 respectively, primarily due to injuries and extra attention from opposing offenses.
Now, I am not suggesting that both Sawyer and Tuimoloau can make similar massive jumps this fall; Sawyer had three sacks in 2021, Tuimoloau had 3.5. But, I would imagine that given what we’ve heard about their progress and the sparks that we saw last season, at least one of them has the potential to break through and have double-digit sacks in 2022.
Keep in mind that Tuimoloau didn’t arrive in Columbus until late summer 2021, so he was still getting used to the defense — and college in general — for a large portion of the season. That was undoubtedly a factor into why Sawyer appeared to be more prepared for large parts of their respective freshman campaigns. Now that they are both essentially on equal footing, I expect both to make a more consistent impact this season.
In addition to Harrison, Tyler Friday and Javontae Jean-Baptiste will certainly factor into the mix at defensive end, and Johnson could give Friday the nod out of respect for his seniority, but at this point in camp, given everything that we know, I would expect Harrison, Sawyer, and Tuimoloau — in no particular order — to be the top three edge rushers in terms of snaps this season for the Buckeyes.
And if even two of the three are able to even approach the hype associated with their respective five-star pedigrees, 2022 could very well be a return to the glory days of Ohio State ends wreaking havoc on backfields across the Big Ten and beyond.