Elite defensive line play has become a constant at Ohio State under the tutelage of defensive line coach Larry Johnson. Since joining the program ahead of the 2014 season, Johnson’s defensive line units have been an embarrassment of riches in terms of talent and depth, and the 2019 season figures to be more of the same for Johnson and the Buckeyes.
Following Thursday’s practice, Johnson and members of his defensive line met with the media to talk about their progress as the first week of camp nears its end and scrimmage day looms on Saturday.
“The first five or six days of practice have been really good,” Johnson said. “We’ve been really concentrating on fundamentals, technique, trying to take advantage of what we have. We have a lot of depth on the inside, trying to get six or seven guys ready to play.”
Johnson said he believes he will be able to rotate six guys inside at the defensive tackle positions with a “bonus player” added in. Specifically, Johnson singled out Jashon Cornell, Taron Vincent, and Haskell Garrett as the guys in the rotation at the three-technique tackle position. As for the nose tackles, Johnson said Davon Hamilton, Robert “B.B.” Landers, and Tommy Togiai are in the mix. All six players Johnson named saw a significant number of snaps last season.
Asked about how this defensive line stacks up to his past groups at Ohio State, Johnson said the interior line is the fastest he’s coached. “We’re really quick, we can run to the football,” he said. “I think that’s the thing that separates this group.” He later said it is unusual to have that much depth at defensive tackle, filled with guys he feels can play with any other defensive linemen in the country.
Whoever starts at the three-technique position will have significant shoes to fill following the departure of first-team All-Big Ten standout Dre’Mont Jones, who was a third-round pick by the Denver Broncos in April. Johnson said he believes it is all there for Cornell, who is entering his final year of eligibility, to be that guy and even do many of the things that made Jones a point of emphasis on all opposing scouting reports.
“I think he sees the goal, what he can be,” Johnson said of Cornell. “He has all the tools, he’s everything we thought he would be. So, now it’s about doing it on the field.”
Junior defensive end Chase Young will headline the highly-talented defensive line room in what figures to be his final season in Columbus before likely becoming a first-round pick in next year’s NFL Draft. Young will surely see his share of double teams and offensive line protections slid to his side this season, something Johnson said they are already preparing for.
“Our inside guys have to be really good pass rushers,” Johnson said of exploiting double teams on Young. “That’s been our focus from the day we ended (last) season, to get ready for that. Now, they double Chase and turn Jashon or B.B. loose, we have one-on-one on the inside. I’ll take that all day.”
Johnson added that offensive lines won’t be able to leave one-on-one matchups inside all day, which will then free up Young for opportunities to get in the backfield. He also said Young will be moved around between the two defensive end spots so that offenses will have to find him pre-snap.
Of course, there is natural frustration that comes with consistent double teams, but Johnson said he is also preparing Young for that as well.
“It happens to all the great ones,” he said. “They’re not going to let those guys run free. They can’t. If he does (see isolated matchups), he’s going to make a mess on the backside.”
Johnson has seen his share of great ones move through his programs, having coached eight future first-round draft picks dating back to his time at Penn State. That Johnson’s units have seen little to no drop off from year to year, despite losing elite talents to the draft seemingly following every season, is a testament to how elite he is in his own right on the recruiting trail.
With Young figuring to add to the impressive total of top picks to be coached by Johnson following the upcoming season, questions of who is next in this NFL pipeline he has created are appropriate.
Senior Jonathon Cooper, a Gahanna native, is expected to start opposite Young. But behind the two upperclassmen are a group filled with relative inexperience who will be expected to fill out Johnson’s rotation.
Tyreke Smith is entering his sophomore season after finding himself in the mix at defensive end as a true freshman last year. Smith underwent an unspecified surgery in June but was cleared for practice ahead of the start of camp. Asked about Smith, Johnson said the first priority is to get him fully healthy and that they’re “bringing him on slowly.” But when healthy, Johnson said of Smith, “He has a chance to be really special.”
Tyler Friday, a sophomore, and Javontae Jean-Baptiste, who redshirted last season as a freshman, were named by Johnson as guys who are performing well in camp in the early going.
Asked about highly-touted true freshman Zach Harrison, who chose to stay close to home after a standout career at Olentangy Orange, Johnson said Harrison is making significant strides.
“Zach has made so much improvement,” Johnson said. “From high school to where he is right now, today, has been a 180. He’s a different player than what he was in high school. And that’s cool because he’s grown. He’s tough, physical, smart. He can run like the wind, and he loves where he is at right now. He has a chance to be a good player if he can develop, and I think he will.”
Johnson said it is too early to say whether Harrison will find himself in the rotation at defensive end but did say that without wanting to put too much pressure on him at this point, “he’s getting close.”
The Buckeyes are back on the practice field today, and Saturday’s practice will serve as the always-important scrimmage day. Head Coach Ryan Day is scheduled to meet with the media following Saturday’s scrimmage.
Look for further coverage of Ohio State’s 2019 fall camp in upcoming editions of The Gazette.