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Unreasonable expectations: 2023 will see the return of the sack artist for Ohio State

OSU has not had a player reach double-digit sacks since Chase Young in 2019. In fact, no Buckeye has even come close. But there is reason to believe that a new sack artist will emerge in 2023.

Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In 2019, Chase Young set an Ohio State single-season record with 16.5 sacks. He became only the second Buckeye to produce multiple double-digit sack seasons, joining Mike Vrabel, the man/myth/legend who established OSU’s career record (36 sacks) during his impressive mid-90s run.

It was a banner year for Young, whose record-setting performance led to him being selected second overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

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However, since Young’s days of terrorizing Big Ten quarterbacks, sacks have been harder to come by for the Scarlet and Gray. And that is putting it mildly. If speaking bluntly, many (including myself) would say that the Buckeyes’ pass rush has stunk for three consecutive seasons, aside from the occasional dismantling of an inferior opponent.

Problems began during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when Ohio State’s entire team accounted for 21 sacks. 2021? Not much better. And last season, despite the arrival of defensive coordinator Jim Knowles – whose Oklahoma State defense led the NCAA in sacks in 2021 – the Buckeyes finished with a “meh” 34 team sacks in 13 games.

For comparison purposes, let’s look back at that 2019 season: Young’s squad totaled 53 team sacks, which would seem like a made-up number if you only started watching OSU football during the pandemic. As far as individual performances go, it would have taken the combined sack totals of Jack Sawyer, Mike Hall Jr., Javontae Jean-Baptiste, AND J.T. Tuimoloau to match The Predator’s output... And he (Young) only played 12 games in 2019!

Long story short, the (recent) pass rush has not been good enough in Columbus. That, combined with a porous secondary, has resulted in the Buckeyes’ defense taking a noticeable step back. Sure, the unit looks fine hosting Rutgers at home, but games against TTUN and Georgia have exposed several frustrating truths: Can’t get after the quarterback, can’t cover, can’t stop an elite offense.

But 2023 is the year, folks. This Ohio State defense will get back on track. And its resurgence will be led by a much-improved pass rush, spearheaded by a double-digit sack machine coming off the edge.

Is this an unreasonable expectation? Perhaps. But OSU does not lack talent up front. In fact, this might be the team’s most talented defensive line since Young, Dre’Mont Jones, and Nick Bosa shared the field in 2018. So I feel justified in having high, potentially unreasonable expectations.

Tuimoloau has flashed dominant potential many times, he just needs more help. Sawyer is penciled in at his natural position, ending a painful and poorly executed Jack experiment. Don’t forget, this guy was a top-10 national recruit who people compared to Nick Bosa, and the Buckeyes had him playing a stand-up position most of the time!

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The interior of this defensive line might be even better than the edges. Ok, I am probably getting a little rambunctious with that statement, but if Hall Jr. and Tyleik Williams stay healthy, plus the recent addition of Tywone Malone... whoa, Nelly. Regardless, this entire DL group is stacked across the board, which has not been the case in recent years.

No disrespect to those who have moved on, but players like Jean-Baptiste, Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith, Taron Vincent, Antwuan Jackson Jr., and Jerron Cage simply weren’t impactful. Or impactful enough. Yet they played a ton of snaps in recent seasons... I appreciate, admire, and respect Larry Johnson as much as the next fan, but really?

Fortunately for Buckeye Nation, Johnson and Ohio State will not be able to use seniority as a crutch in 2023. Maybe Sawyer or Williams gets exposed with a larger sample size, but at least their respective ceilings are exponentially higher than those who preceded them. And I haven’t even mentioned Kenyatta Jackson, Caden Curry, Omari Abor, Ty Hamilton, Hero Kanu... Just typing their names raises my expectations even further. This is a very talented group, and I expect their total production to lap that of the old guard.

All that being said, most DL groups are only as good as the defense – specifically the secondary – behind them. And OSU should be much-improved there as well. CB2 will be an upgrade over recent seasons, Denzel Burke appears to be back on track, and the safety room has options on top of options. If the Buckeyes’ DBs show a consistent ability to jam, turn, run, and cover, that will allow the studs up front to pin their ears back and get after opposing quarterbacks.

So which of the “Rushmen” will step up and reach that double-digit sack number? I’m not entirely sure. My guess would be Tuimoloau, but you could also talk me into Sawyer. Fortunately for yours truly, this is not a bold prediction(s) piece. It is an unreasonable expectation(s) piece and expecting an Ohio State DL to reach 10+ sacks – given what we’ve seen in recent years – seems somewhat unreasonable to me. But not entirely, because I wholeheartedly believe in the talent up front. Hopefully they are ready to party in the backfield like it’s 2019 all over again.

Go Bucks.