Ohio State Buckeyes Spring Preview: Defensive Line

COLUMBUS — Another spring brings another defensive line for Larry Johnson to mold at Ohio State.

His group is coming off a season in which it was more stout but still struggled to create big plays, much like the 2022 defense as a whole.

ExploreWhere the defense improved and where it did not in year one under Jim Knowles

Two of Johnson’s top four producers from last season are gone, but he still has about a dozen scholarship players to work with in March and April with an eye on being more disruptive this fall.

“I feel good about it,” Johnson said. “I know what we have in numbers. I know what we have on the field. Guys have played. Guys have been in games so I’m excited about that. Now, they’ve got to get those roles changed. Now those guys are going from 25 plays to 40-50 plays, and that’s a different mindset you got to have. So I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in spring football.”

Returning starters: J.T. Tuimoloau, Ty Hamilton

Next in line: Mike Hall Jr., Jack Sawyer, Tyliek Williams, Caden Curry

Also in the mix: Kenyatta Jackson, Hero Kanu, Jaden McKenzie, Will Smith Jr., Omari Abor

On the way: Jason Moore, Joshua Mickens, Kayden McDonald

Tuimoloau led the defensive line with 10.5 tackles for loss last season as a sophomore, frequently showing why he was the No. 4-ranked player in the class of 2021, but Johnson confirmed he can do more this season.

“He can play at a high level. We’ve seen him do that,” Johnson said. “So it’s not trying to get him to play at a high level, it’s being consistent at that high level. I think that’s the key going to do going into the fall going into the winter.”

Sawyer, who checked in one spot behind Tuimoloau in the 2021 national rankings, had 4.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss last season, but he was a less consistent force as the coaching staff sought to find his best role.

He played both a traditional defensive end spot and the hybrid “Jack” role, but Johnson indicated Sawyer might concentrate on the former this season to get the best out of him.

“I think we got to make that decision and go for it,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll do that a little bit in the spring, just try to get him a home and let him go play.”

Explore5 questions facing the offense this spring

Hamilton started the last five games and looks like an anchor in the middle, meaning Hall and Williams figure to be sharing the other inside spot this season. Both have displayed major playmaking skills but can find another level of production and consistency.

“I thought Ty (Hamilton) had a great year,” Johnson said. “He came in and really won the position, he really did, and he continued to play better down the stretch so I expect great things from him.”

Hall had some flashes of greatness as a redshirt freshman but battled an unidentified injury much of the year and was only able to play a limited number of snaps. If healthy, he could be a force full time.

“I think Mike brings the different dimension in what he can do,” Johnson said. “So we’ll figure it out, but I think Mike’s a starter somewhere. And we just got to find a place to get him on the field. I think he’ll be fine.”

Curry figures to be one of the more interesting players to watch this spring. The late addition to the 2022 class was an asset on special teams and saw a few snaps on defense as a true freshman.

“Caden will go into the offseason at No. 2 on the depth chart at defensive end,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to move him. I want him to learn how to play that position and play it well. And so I think he’s got a good chance to really be a factor for us now as he settles in going into the second year.”

Jackson and Abor are four-star prospects who saw little action last season but will be looking to carve out spots in the rotation this season while classmate Kanu could be Hamilton’s backup at nose tackle.

“KJ has done a great job, has some really, really good pass rush ability,” Johnson said. “Omar is really strong, a really physical guy who is up to 265. Came in at 240. He’s a real strong and now a physical guy. I think spring football, this is what it’s all about, you get the chance to see those guys play a lot of football in the spring because that’s what it’s all about.”

Smith is the son of Ohio State legend Will Smith Sr. but projects as a play-making tackle rather than an end like his father.

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