Over the past three defensive coordinator transitions, the Ohio State Buckeyes have hinted at a future of hybrid defensive positions. For multiple offseasons, the term “Bullet” was thrown around like the position was part of this holy text, when in reality it glorified a position that few teams should deploy unless they have a player in the mold of Isaiah Simmons, Jabrill Peppers, etc.
Now, the story about the Jack linebacker has sunk its teeth into Buckeye Nation, much like the “Bullet” position craze before it. For anyone interested, the Jack never became the illustrious “Leo” position that Knowles was so in favor of at Oklahoma State. The offseason had Mitchell Melton penciled into the role, but a knee injury derailed that plan. This led to Jack Sawyer taking on the mantle, despite hesitancy from defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
This offseason, Knowles has said that there will be no Jack linebacker practiced in spring as they move to work on their base 4-2-5. This comes on the heels of the announcement Jack Sawyer is not playing the Jack positions this year, instead focusing on becoming a more complete traditional defensive end.
When asked earlier in the spring, Johnson seemed hesitant about some of his players playing the hybrid. But looking back at those words now, there is definitely a part of Johnson who wants to see more of it. Just not now, and not with the current players he’s recruited.
“If that means Jack or playing regular defensive end, I think we got to make that decision and go for it. I think we’ll do a little bit in the spring, just try to get him a home and let him go play,” Johnson said about Sawyer.
Sawyer is playing defensive end this year, and that is home. This will give Ohio State the most talented pair of defensive ends in years, preparing to have a season the Buckeyes have been needing from the edge. Johnson went even further and claimed that second year player Caden Curry is defensive end No. 3 behind the two starters.
That leaves few names that can play the position that come into the year healthy. A big reason for that is the positives from the role were slim. Sawyer had 4.5 sacks, with the majority coming from him with his hand in the ground. The other player Javontae Jean-Baptiste had only four sacks. At best in year one, the Jack position created a distraction for offenses. Is that worth the effort in year 2 when there is not a definitive Jack healthy?
If Mitchell Melton comes into fall camp healthy, there is a possibility this ends up in a package, but dedicating a position to one player seems like a little too much from a resource stand point. Moving C.J. Hicks there in the fall seems like an ideal way to get him on the field, but the trouble with cross-training players is they’re not giving their whole to developing at one position.
The other few players on the roster with Jack potential are Arvell Reese, Joshua Mickens, and Gabe Powers, among a few others. But outside of Mickens, they run into the same problem that Jack Sawyer would in the fact their future is best served focusing on one role.
That is why this position should be shelved moving forward until recruiting finds the guy – or Leo.
There are players who change the way teams play football, and for years Knowles relied on that player as his Leo in the Big 12. Getting a do-it-all defender in advantageous positions is important when the roster is more limited. That was the case for Knowles at Cornell, Duke, and Oklahoma State, but at Ohio State there is not one player cut from that cloth.
That is why in 2023 the focus should be on maximizing the players recruited at the positions they were recruited for. After a few classes, where the focus is there or when Melton is full healthy, there can be a conversation about Jack packages. Until those moments, the goal should be creating versatility through structure, and through the positions that suit the current roster best.
J.T. Tuimoloau is dangerous in a variety of ways. They can utilize him in advantageous positions through twists, stunts, and dropping back into coverage. Sawyer from a hand in the ground sense could still do similar things, but when it comes down to his role on a down-to-down basis, he has a defined sense of purpose.
The success Ohio State had from bringing players from the second level in pressure and from the secondary was high. That is a big reason they were 35th in team sacks with the leading edge rusher having 4.5 on the year. With a hopefully improved secondary, the Buckeyes could get even more dangerous rushing the passer. That is why they don’t need to get fancy.
This position’s future is still on the horizon. There are players across the country who have the skillset and Ohio State will be recruiting them. The reason I bring this up is because there was a time where Ohio State kept recruiting tweeners who didn’t have a position, but were great athletes. There is no reason to dive into names, a few have been mentioned already, but the idea of recruiting a player and finding a place later is far gone.
Unless the player is Sonny Styles, who can do too many things, there is no player who should not be recruited without a plan. Now that there is a sense of stability on the defensive side of the ball, this can begin. Over the next few years, each recruiting class should feature a player with the skillset to play the Jack position if it is to be use effectively.
This has already started with the 2023 recruit Joshua Mickens. As the 2024 class progresses, there will be a player identified with this skillset who will become a priority target. As a three deep turns into a four deep at the position, the plan and impact of the idea can grow. Knowles will have his Leo, but it won’t be this year. His fun will happen with Styles off the ball, but don’t expect the Jack position to be forgotten around the program – it took years for people to get over the bullet.
At the end of the day, there are more important aspects to the defense than moving a defensive lineman around to gain an advantage on a certain play. If Ohio State can create confusion lining up in their base defense by mixing coverages, blitzes, and line movements, the defense will be more dangerous. There will be no keying in on a certain player, and if Knowles feels a need to get spicy he has plenty of athletes who can do that on a play-to-play basis from a traditional alignment.
There is no question Knowles will still get wild, but this past season some of the biggest plays against the Buckeyes came from the gambling nature. That is why getting the easy stuff right needs to take priority, and positional versatility can come as the defense continue being established. The Jack position is shelved for now, and in the near future it should remain there.
Once the turnover on the roster occurs, and the Buckeyes have the depth to dedicate a position to it, there is no reason it won’t reappear. But as of now, Ohio State is not better because of it, and the players on the roster are best served playing in the roles that suit them most. That means a traditional defensive end on both sides, getting after the passer.