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Players to Watch: J.T. Tuimoloau, Jack Sawyer are the key to Ohio State’s defense

Ohio State fans want an elite defense, and it starts with their 2021 cornerstone recruiting pieces.

Ohio State Spring Football Game Photo by Ben Jackson/Getty Images

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 players to watch this upcoming season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Player to Watch” articles here.

Ohio State’s defense has been much improved under Jim Knowles, but going into year two there will be no room for mistakes. For the Buckeyes to take their improvements a step further, the defense will need their edge rushing gems of the 2021 class in J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer.

This offseason, the Buckeyes have already made additional moves to bolster the defensive side of the ball. The first was making the decision that Jack Sawyer would only be a hand-in-the-ground defensive end — no more Jack linebacker in his future. With that decision made, the Buckeyes bolstered the remaining needs on defense through the transfer portal with Ja’Had Carter, Davison Igbinosun, and Tyrone Malone after spring practice.

With the depth bolstered elsewhere and the players who excelled last season in the likes of Tommy Eichenberg, Lathan Ransom, and Steele Chambers, among others, the defense has everything they need to be great. To be truly elite though, it will come down to Tuimoloau and Sawyer becoming the best defensive end tandem in the country.

The most important players to watch are the two most obvious. If they play up to the level their recruiting rankings set, Ohio State will have a national championship defense.

Starting with the stats

Last season, the stats did not match the energy and level of difference making the two elite defensive ends had last year. Sharing time with Zach Harrison as well as some other veterans while adjusting to new schemes definitely led to some plays where they were close, but just couldn’t finish.

Tuimoloau’s season stat line looks far less impressive given he had arguably the greatest individual defensive performance in Ohio State and possibly college football history against Penn State. In that game, the former five-star from Washington had 6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, two sacks, a pass deflection that led to an interception, and a pick six. This showed the freakish potential Tuimoloau has. For the Buckeyes in 2023 they need more consistent levels of these moments.

To put that performance in context to why Tuimoloau’s year never reached its full potential, a good portion of his stats came against Penn State. He had half his interceptions, two of his three and a half sacks, and 30 percent of his tackles for loss. He does not have to destroy game plans on a weekly basis due to the talent on the rest of the line, but he does need to show he can be a dominant force if Ohio State is going to meet all their goals next year.

On the other side of the line, Sawyer had to cross train. When he was the Jack, he never became the LEO, meaning he was not the all-around weapon needed to play that position. Sawyer was recruited to play defensive end. When Knowles accepted that later in the year, it unleashed Sawyer onto quarterbacks. He had his two strongest performances against Indiana and Maryland. Unfortunately, this past season felt wasted.

Sawyer only recorded 4.5 sacks and had games where he was not really impactful in any way. With his talent being getting after the quarterback, he needs to be pinning his ears back. Tuimoloau can probably effect football games in more ways than Sawyer, but having a true quarterback-seeking type of end is something Ohio State has been longing for since 2019.

In football years, that feels like 3000 years of longing, so the importance of the two cornerstones of the defense living up to those expectations is paramount to this defense going to the next level. With Mike Hall Jr. and Tyliek Williams in the middle, the 10 sack threshold is not a necessity as the wealth will be spread around. But when it comes to making a play, there needs to be a person on the field who can win against a tackle in the clutch.

Embracing the EDGE rushers

Jim Knowles has coached at a talent deficit for most of his career. At Ohio State, he does not need to worry about over scheming to create an advantage. He has the talent. Ohio State is more talented on paper than every team in the country definitively not named Alabama or Georgia. Knowles has never coached in a situation like this, so his goal after seeing him speak at the Ohio State Coach’s Clinic this spring is to simplify what he does to maximize the talent on the field.

When you have a Ferrari, you don’t need to overthink when you’re driving it. The car goes when you press the gas. In Ohio State’s case, this means letting the defensive line accelerate off the starting line with little to think about. Continuing on with the Ferrari metaphor, the Italian engineering is what makes under the hood so special. For Knowles, that is how he designs and teaches the defense this offseason.

The first way he changed the design to improve the performance: making Jack Sawyer a full time defensive end. Last season, the Jack linebacker never came to fruition in the ways Knowles and Ohio State fans dreamed it would. That’s okay, as this can be built into future plans through recruiting, but to optimize the performance, playing to the current personnel is the best plan ahead of 2023.

“We did not quite use the position as much as I had hoped last year. It just didn’t seem to develop with our personnel. And so this spring, I want to focus on the fundamentals of our four-down and really getting better at the fundamentals,” Knowles said prior to spring practice.

This makes the world easier for Tuimoloau as well. Having a great edge rusher on both sides means teams can not scheme to directly commit help to one side. With the dominant interior defensive linemen, if the edge rushers can improve on their consistency there is no easy plan to stop the front four. Combining that with Knowles’ creativity of bringing blitzes and stunts, this can be a dangerous formula for opposing offensive lines.

The other aspect of defensive end versus Jack that embracing two ends will help is simplifying run fits. Ends set the edge, pursue from the back side, or shuffle down the line. Whereas the Jack gets lined up all over the formation, meaning the run fit responsibilities in themselves are a significant study for whoever plays the position.

Overall, going with a straight 4-2-5 simplifies the roles and in turn simplifies the scheme. Can that put the defense at a disadvantage? Only if the defensive line can’t raise their level of play. For the Buckeyes, they can still use Knowles creativity to create conflict for the offensive decision makers on the other side, but Ohio State needs do that within the base scheme.

With Sawyer and Tuimoloau in more solidified roles with nobody in front of them or sharing snaps with them, and no more cross training on Sawyer’s part, there is no reason both ends shouldn’t take a significant step forward this year. Embracing the traditional defensive end gives us a significant reason to watch Tuimoloau and Sawyer in 2023. In these bigger, more defined roles, they will dictate the level of the defense with how much they improve this season.

The reason Sawyer and Tuimoloau are players to watch in my eyes is simple — they need to be elite for Ohio State to reach their end of season goals. Everybody will be watching to see if these two can finally reignite the lineage of elite defensive ends at Ohio State. Both players have flashed the needed skills and level of talent to be dominant players, now for them it is all about putting their entire repertoire to use on a consistent basis.

Larry Johnson won his battle in getting Sawyer back to being a full-time defensive end, so that adds pressure to what is expected. Knowles is evolving to maximize the personnel he has — at least that is what he’s been saying and shown this spring. By simplifying the scheme, Knowles is putting his chips on the table. He knows how talented Sawyer and Tuimoloau are. Pairing those two with the dominant two interior defensive linemen should have every Ohio State fan excited.