COLUMBUS — Among the many glaring issues facing the Ohio State defense over the past two seasons has been the lack of game-changing talents along the defensive line.
Now with a season under their belts, however, sophomore defensive ends J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer could be ready to return the unit back to the level of play the program has grown accustomed to through the years.
After coming to Columbus as heralded five-star recruits last year, the duo offered glimpses of what made them so coveted as high school seniors, combining for 5.5 sacks while appearing in all 13 games for the Buckeyes in 2021. With the benefit of going through an entire offseason, particularly with strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti, their position coach expects even bigger things from them this season.
“I think there’s a lot of growth with a full offseason, a full season in the weight room now for the first time,” defensive line coach Larry Johnson Sr. said on Tuesday. “(Tuimoloau) came early last year, but he didn’t get the full offseason with a full winter and spring, and I think the strength gains have been tremendous. The same thing with Jack, he’s gone from 255 lbs. to 265 lbs., so those guys have done a great job in the weight room.”
Sawyer enrolled early in the winter of 2021, affording him the opportunity to experience a winter conditioning program under Marotti and pack on muscle ahead of the summer grind. In total, Sawyer said he’s gained 35 lbs. of muscle since arriving on campus.
Tuimoloau was not able to benefit from those same experiences, however, after a marathon recruitment further complicated by COVID-19 protocols and mandates forced him to delay his eventual commitment to Ohio State last summer until July 4. By the time Tuimoloau arrived in Columbus for the start of his college career, there was hardly any time for acclimation as camp was underway just a few weeks later.
Still, he made the most of his opportunities in the preseason and proved to be too talented for Johnson to keep off the field. Heading into year two, and now with his first full offseason squared away, Tuimoloau is naturally more at ease with what’s expected of him this season.
“I feel more comfortable than I was (last year),” Tuimoloau said on Tuesday. “I came here three, four weeks ago (at this time last year), and as soon as I got here, I got thrown right in. I had to figure it out quickly. Now that I’ve gone through the whole process of having a season and being with (strength) Coach Mick (Marotti), I feel pretty good.”
Asked what his focuses were this offseason after a productive freshman season, Tuimoloau cited the strength program — he’s lighter and more nimble — as well as trusting the people around him, knowing such a combination will lead him where he wants to go.
“I just wanted to cut (my weight) down a little bit and just trust Coach Mick and all of the coaches, trust in (Johnson), who is the man, the myth, the legend, and the talent will go from there,” Tuimoloau said.
For Sawyer, the emphasis over the past six months has been trying to keep up with all of his responsibilities in a brand new defense under coordinator Jim Knowles. Those responsibilities could expand beyond his traditional role as an edge rusher, too, as Sawyer might find himself in Knowles’s hybrid safety and linebacker “jack” position this fall.
“I’ve just tried to really get in the playbook,” Sawyer said. “With learning a new defense, I’ve just tried to put my head down and really make sure I know where I’m supposed to be in every play and package. That’s really where I’ve made a lot of strides. And, obviously, in the offseason, I’ve put on some more weight and gotten stronger and tried to tune up everything because you can get better at everything.”
Whatever his role will be this season, Sawyer said he doesn’t feel the pressure to make a leap similar to the past greats such as Chase Young, Nick Bosa, and Joey Bosa, who each began to build their legacies in their second year in the program.
“I’m not trying to focus on that,” Sawyer said of the expectations. “I don’t really feel any pressure right now. I heard a quote one time that said, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ so if anyone feels like I should have pressure, that’s kind of a good thing … I’m just trying to go out there and play as hard and as best as I can every time I step on the field.”
Sawyer said finding familiarity with the speed of the college game has helped him, as well as the other second-year players, considerably in finding their footing and being able to build toward something bigger this season.
“We were thinking too much, and we obviously needed to get bigger and stronger,” Sawyer said. “But playing fast was the key for us and we’re back to playing how we used to play.”
If the results midway through camp are any indication, Sawyer, Tuimoloau, and the entire Ohio State defense are prepared to play fast. The defense has received constant praise throughout camp from offensive players and coaches who have noticed a stark contrast to last year’s unit. The whispers of a revitalized Silver Bullets defense have seeped out of the Woody Hayes Athletic Facility, but Sawyer understands it’s all speculation until they prove it on the field.
“People can talk. People can set expectations for us. People can say this and that, but it doesn’t mean anything until we step on the field and prove it and show it every snap,” Sawyer said. “We’re all looking forward to Sept. 3 for obvious reasons to show everyone what we’re about on that side of the ball this year.”