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Unreasonable Expectations: Ohio State’s defensive line will be the most dominant in the country

The Buckeyes have their most talented group in some time. If they aren’t the best in the country, that might lead to disappointment

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Brooke LaValley / USA TODAY NETWORK

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about our Unreasonable Expectations. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our Unreasonable Expectations here.

When it comes to Ohio State football, finding unreasonable expectations is hard because every expectation feels reasonable when you talk it out. The Buckeyes going 15-0, winning the Big Ten, a national championship, and having a top-10 offense as well as defense during the process does not feel that unreasonable.

We can talk about Kyle McCord or Devin Brown coming in as the starting quarterback this season and being the best quarterback in the Big Ten. There is also the possibility of having two 1000-yard rushers, two 1000-yard receivers, and many players scoring touchdowns. Even with all those not-so reasonable, but entirely still in the realm of possibility expectations, this years team has some positions that may be difficult to project.

That is where my unreasonable expectations come into play: Ohio State’s defensive line will be a dominant unit. In year two of Jim Knowles, the expectation for the defense is significant improvement to the point of three level dominance on a weekly basis. This will start up front, it is time for the defense to not only show their talent, but destroy entire game plans.

Breaking down the position group

Ohio State has five multiple-season contributors back this season in J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer, Mike Hall, Tyliek Williams, and Ty Hamilton. These five players have shared the field with veterans, and now will be relied on as the driving force of the defense this season. The Buckeyes have seen elite moments from every player listed, but none of the five have maintained an elite level of play for an extended period of time.

Starting on the edges, Tuimoloau was responsible for the most dominant performance defensively in Ohio State history against Penn State. Many people thought that game would be a building block to his next step. Instead Tuimoloau fell back to Earth in his follow up performances. The need for a dominant edge rusher is the place this starts, and although he might not have the make up of a pure pass rusher, Tuimoloau has the skills to make a difference at a more consistent clip.

His running mate Sawyer is now back to being a full-time end. With a shift back to a more traditional 4-2-5 in Knowles’ second year, the junior defensive end will be back in his natural position with his hand on the ground. If Sawyer can consistently pressure passers and maintain a reliability in the run game, the defense should be significantly improved up front.

Moving to the interior, both Mike Hall and Tyliek Williams have shown an ability to wreck games. The importance of a dominant interior presence is what takes a defensive line from dominant, to most dominant in the country. If Hall can provide a more sustained level of effort, and Williams can maintain high level playing shape for 12 games. Hall dominated Notre Dame, he dominated other games and many people asked why Williams hasn’t played more the last two seasons. Lack of consistency is why, and that will be the biggest difference maker this year.

Lastly, Ohio State won’t have veterans who know the role getting in the way of higher upside players this season. The door is open for Caden Curry, Kenyatta Jackson, Hero Kanu, and Omari Abor will have opportunities to establish themselves as rotational players. If the potential that was mentioned in the spring hits for this group, the Buckeyes will have their most talented depth in some time.

Will Ohio State have a 10 sack guy?

Ohio State has not had a 10 sack or more pass rusher since Chase Young had 16.5 sacks and was a Heisman Finalist. Before that you did not have to go very far back, just another year where Young had 10.5 sacks. Diving into the years, having a 10 sack guy does not always mean the pass rush in itself is dynamic.

Ohio State team sack totals the 10 seasons

Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
Year Team Sack Total Sack Leader
2022 34 4.5
2021 37 5.5
2020 21 3.5 (Covid Year)
2019 53 16.5
2018 41 10.5
2017 45 8.5
2016 28 8
2015 38 8
2014 45 13.5
2013 40 7.5

Looking at the table above, the last 10 seasons have netted only three years with a player having 10 or more sacks. The 10-sack threshold is not a necessity, but having a player that dominant changes the game plan of teams. Having to plan for one individual pass rusher who is that much of a difference maker means shading running backs in protections and sliding pass protections to that side.

There is also the thought process since this is unreasonable expectations that Ohio State has two 10-sack guys and exceeds the 50 sack team total. Louisville was the only team in the country who hit that number last year. If two players get to 10, it is very possible. Knowles likes to blitz, and if the offense builds leads there will be plenty of opportunities.

The only outside variable that should effect this is how good the secondary is this season. If the secondary can make quarterbacks hold on to the ball, and not leave receivers open at any level, the defensive line will have that extra half second to get it done. Playing 15 games the defense would need to average 3.3 sacks per game, and in 14 games just over 3.5 sacks to get this done. If they do that, it is safe to say that the Ohio State defensive line can be considered the most dominant in the country.

The advanced stats to measure the groups dominance

Building onto the sack total statistic is a more holistic view of defensive line performance with the line stats. In combination with the traditional tackle, tackle for loss, sacks, and pass break up stats, the advance line stats add context to a unit that’s statistical significance is not always easy to quantify.

Having these stats at the disposal, Ohio State’s defensive line ranked 21st after averaging out the ranks over the nine stats. That definitely would not be considered most dominant, and some would argue that is on the fringe of being considered dominant or elite. For the Buckeyes to be considered the most dominant group in the country, they are going to have to rank higher in more stats.

This is unreasonable expectations here, so I absolutely expect more No. 1 rankings than just pass rush success rate on standard downs. They only ranked in the top-10 in one more stat with that stat being power success rate. Ohio State has to be better up front in passing downs when getting after the passer bringing it full circle back to the sack totals.

Ohio State ranked 67th in passing down sack rate which skewed the average ranking. If they can become better in this area situationally, this group can move into the dominant tier. If they can improve incrementally in the other stats, they would have the talent and stats to back up my unreasonable expectation.

What will classify as a dominant line?

The most dominant line in the country can’t only be measured by stats. There is definitely a “you know it when you see it” vibe in this measurement on top of the stats. For my unreasonable expectation, this group should be nothing short of the most dominant group in the country. To classify this we need to consider what we see, the stats they put up, and how the advanced stats show their impact on the game in certain situations.

Ohio State has the talent to reach their most sacks since 2019. That does not mean they will at the end of the day though. This group has shown flashes, but has never maintained the consistency needed to be seen as truly dominant. This year they will need to have players beyond the first four step up if they want to reach the sack number and other standard stats needed to be seen as the most dominant line in the country.

If they meet those marks, they should improve in some areas in the advanced stats which would show on paper their level of dominance. The only issue with that is a casual fans across the country would discredit those stats due to being in the Big Ten, whatever that means. That means it has to be explosive, it has to be there in key moments, and as a group they have to dominate the best teams on the schedule.

This unreasonable expectation only feels unreasonable because of recent years, but it was just a few years ago that out relative nowhere, Chase Young turned into a one man wrecking crew. The last thing, if Ohio State wants to win a national championship it starts up front, and that is not unreasonable.