It’s not often a team can say goodbye to Nick Bosa and still feel pretty good about their defensive ends.
That’s Ohio State’s situation, and it was made easier by the fact that Bosa was gone from Game Three on last year, which forced everybody to grow up a bit more quickly.
Now, every defensive end who played from Game Four on last year is back, and because there is so much depth, fifth-year senior Jashon Cornell was moved back to defensive tackle this spring.
And not only is everybody back, but there will be four new defensive ends in the mix this season in redshirt freshmen Javontae Jean-Baptiste and Alex Williams, and true freshmen Zach Harrison and Noah Potter.
Of Ohio State’s eight defensive ends, six are underclassmen.
2 Chase Young, Jr (6-5 265)
54 Tyler Friday, Soph (6-3 260)
33 Zach Harrison, Fr (6-6 255)
17 Alex Williams, rFr (6-6 270)
In Ohio State’s sweeping defensive changes to incorporate more simplicity, it was revealed this spring that the Buckeyes’ defensive line was going to return to their upfield ways. Gone is last year’s gameplan of going east/west after the snap. Instead, the defensive line is getting back to defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s preferred straightforward approach. The charge this spring was get upfield, mind the gap in front of you, and tackle whoever has the ball. There is much less thinking involved and it allows Ohio State’s athletes on the defensive line to put their talents to better use.
“When you get to the level he’s at, he’s got to be a really great technician. The athleticism takes over and now his tool box, his pass rush, his skill set, his hands, those are the things that separate him. Those are the things we’re working on. It’s the little things that’s going to continue to improve.” — Defensive line coach Larry Johnson on what the focus has been for Chase Young.
As mentioned above, of Ohio State’s eight defensive ends on scholarship, six of them are first- year or second-year players. Jonathon Cooper is the lone senior, but the Buckeyes are also expected to lose junior Chase Young after this season. For the six youngsters, spring ball was a great opportunity to add to their respective tool boxes. For freshman Zach Harrison, it was a chance to see how technique enhances his physical gifts. For sophomore Tyreke Smith, the spring allowed him to grow as a leader and a pass rusher. He is going to be counted on this year and he knows it.
Ohio State may have seven — or maybe even eight — defensive ends who could start at various Big Ten schools this season. They have four or five who could start this season for the Buckeyes. Larry Johnson has said he will play whoever shows themselves worthy of playing. In 2017, he was able to play four regularly, and then also mix in Chase Young and Jonathon Cooper. Something similar could happen this season, but then you’d still have two of Zach Harrison, Javontae Jean-Baptiste, or Noah Potter standing and watching on the sideline. And after seeing all three of them this spring, that would seem to be a waste of an opportunity.
With the added depth and experience this spring, we saw several candidates for the interior of the Rushmen package. Last year, there weren’t enough defensive ends to fill out all four slots on passing downs, but that was okay because the plan was always to incorporate defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones. This spring, however, we saw Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison playing on the inside as Rushmen. And had Tyler Friday not been dealing with an injury, we may have seen him there as well. Harrison is still getting bigger and stronger, and learning to stay low, which will need to continue if he is going to be taking on interior blockers this season. His explosion and reach, however, make him an intriguing possibility anywhere he lines up.
Redshirt freshman Javontae Jean-Baptiste is still being fitted to his frame, but even a bit light at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, he looked like a contributor this spring. As a 215-pound high school linebacker, Jean-Baptiste was an active defender who could chase running backs down just as easily as quarterbacks. Now with another 30 or 40 pounds on him, he still showed that same pursuit this spring. He was arguably the brightest surprise of the entire defense. Can he work his way into the top four and move into the rotation? That will be decided this fall, but after seeing him this spring, I’m not going to be doubting his chances.