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Player to Watch: After the memorable game against Penn State last year, J.T. Tuimoloau looking for more consistency in 2023

Even though the defensive end had a once-in-a-lifetime game against Penn State, he disappeared at times the rest of the year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Indiana at Ohio State Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every day from now until the start of the season, Land-Grant Holy Land is highlighting Ohio State football players that you should be watching this season. Check out all of our ”Player to Watch” articles to get ready for the season opener against Indiana.

Last year we saw one of the greatest individual defensive performances in college football history when J.T. Tuimoloau wreaked havoc against Penn State in State College. The defensive end recorded six tackles, with three of those stops being for loss, two sacks, two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery. The 14-yard interception return for a touchdown with less than three minutes to go gave Ohio State a 44-24 lead in a game they would end up winning 44-31.

How good was Tuimoloau against Penn State? With two interceptions, two sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery, he became the first player in the 21st century to record those stats in a FBS game. The once-in-a-lifetime performance earned Tuimoloau plenty of honors following the game. Tuimoloau was named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week, the Bednarik Award Player of the Week, and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week.

Even though Tuimoloau was named first team All-Big Ten by the coaches, it felt like the sophomore disappeared at times last season. Outside of the Penn State game, Tuimoloau recorded 20 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack, and broke up five passes. The Buckeyes are going to need more consistency this year from Tuimoloau if the defense wants to be one of the best in the country. While the junior doesn’t have to put up numbers every game like he did against Penn State, he will need to make more of an impact than he did in the majority of the other games last year.

The type of game like Tuimoloau had against Penn State can be both a gift and a curse. Of course it’s going to feel amazing to take over a game in a hostile environment like Beaver Stadium, but after people can see you are capable of dominating a game, they expect you to play like that every week. After a while Tuimoloau probably has gotten sick of talking about the game and people wondering why he isn’t playing like that all the time.

As if trying to live up to the Penn State game wasn’t enough for Tuimoloau, he also has had to deal with being the highest-rated defensive prospect to sign with Ohio State in the modern recruiting era, which started in 2000. Over the last decade there have been great defensive ends like Chase Young and the Bosa brothers that have gone on to be top-five picks in the NFL Draft. With being a top recruit, many likely expected Tuimoloau to step in and dominate from day one.

Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t that simple. Tuimoloau played in all 13 games during his freshman year, but signing with the Buckeyes late in the recruiting period kept him off the field more than he possibly could have been had he been an early enrollee at Ohio State. Also, it didn’t help that the defense in 2021 was a mess during the Kerry Coombs/Matt Barnes experiment. Last year Tuimoloau was able to familiarize himself with what defensive coordinator Jim Knowles wanted him to do on the field.

Despite being frustrated with Tuimoloau’s inconsistency at times last year, we have to remember that he is still only entering his junior season. There’s no reason to think Tuimoloau can’t get everything to click and make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks like he did to Sean Clifford last year. Not only has Tuimoloau gotten a taste of what it’s like to dominate a game, he also has one of the best defensive line coaches in college football history helping to try and make him the best he can be.

What should also help Tuimoloau this year is he has a ton of talent surrounding him on defense, pushing him to be even better. At the other end of the defensive line is Jack Sawyer, he was almost as highly-touted as Tuimoloau coming out of high school. With two outstanding defensive ends, it creates a big problem for opposing offensive coordinators as they have to decide how to allocate their resources to try and slow the duo down. If Tuimoloau is able to get into the backfield like we saw against Penn State, it makes life so much easier for the rest of the defense.

This feels like it could be a real breakout season for Tuimoloau. We have already seen how great he can be, now he just needs to show it on more of a consistent basis. Even though Tuimoloau loves the accolades and praise he has gotten for his big game, it also has to eat at him that he didn’t make as much of an impact throughout the season. There is likely going to be a chip of the junior’s shoulder this year as he works to show the rest of the college football world that he deserves to be in the conversation as one of the best defensive ends in the country, and NFL teams should be looking at him as a possible first round pick next year.