Johnson talks Buckeyes DL as spring practice continues


Ohio State’s 2024 offseason received a massive momentum boost in January as a slew of draft-eligible contributors elected to return for one more season.

No single position benefitted from that collective decision more than the defensive line, which retained the services of its top two pass rushers in J.T. Tuimoloau and Jack Sawyer along with interior defensive lineman Tyleik Williams. While defensive line coach Larry Johnson must still identify the depth pieces that will round out his rotation on the edge and in the interior, the Buckeyes figure to boast one of the nation’s best defensive lines when the season kicks off in August.

“The fact that those guys came back makes us stronger, no question,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “You’ve got experienced players who’ve played, and they’re coming back other than Mike Hall. They’ve been great, so I think there’s a chance for us to be really good. But it’s a long way away to determining that, but I like where we are in the sense that those guys make us better and also make the young players better.”

Those decisions didn’t come easily for three players who likely would have been high-round draft picks, but Johnson said the many conversations had between himself and the players ultimately solidified what was most important to them.

“There’s a culture and a brotherhood, those are all the reasons they came back,” Johnson said. “But we spent a lot of time talking, talking to the parents for them to make the right decision. And it still came down to them making the decision about what’s best for them, and they all felt the best thing was to come back and try to do it again.”

Johnson added, “I think it’s awesome. It speaks volumes of the kids and their families. It really speaks to what they believe in — the brotherhood and culture of this program — which is why they came back.”

As spring practice nears the halfway point ahead of next month’s spring game, Johnson said many of the reps are being given to the guys who will be counted upon to provide depth behind the known commodities. There appears to be no shortage of options at defensive tackle as Kayden McDonald, Hero Kanu, Will Smith Jr., and even second-year player Jason Moore are pushing for playing time.

McDonald and Kanu saw the field last season and hope to build on the flashes they showed in limited opportunities. Johnson said Smith, who was hurt most of last season, is now fully healthy and “practicing really well” this spring.

Despite his 6-foot-6, 305 lbs. frame, Moore’s inclusion in Johnson’s early list of candidates to get into the rotation may come as a surprise to many as he’s still finding his footing at Ohio State. However, at that size, Johnson called Moore the “ideal 3-tech” lineman in his system and a guy who’s made the biggest jump in his room this offseason.

“It’s just a matter of him having confidence and playing,” Johnson said of Moore. “Sometimes you get here and it’s bigger than you think it is, and it kind of takes you back. Now in the spring, we’re challenging, and every day’s been a good day for Jason Moore. That’s what we want to see.”

Perhaps another player who could contend for playing time this fall is Tywone Malone, who is also entering his second season at Ohio State after transferring from Ole Miss ahead of last season. Johnson said Malone came to Columbus with a bit of catching up to do but is beginning to settle in as a football player.

“He’s coming along real good,” Johnson said. “I think the thing with Tywone is he was behind football-wise because he’s been a baseball player all his life. And then he goes down to (Ole Miss) and plays baseball again. So he was behind football-wise when he got here, just technique-wise and playing the game. It’s taken him a year, but now we see the growth. Now we see the potential of what he can bring to the table, and that gives us more depth.”

Regardless of who ultimately cracks the rotation, Johnson was clear about what will be expected of them this season.

“They’ve got to be able to come in and play 25-35 plays a game and do it early in the season,” he said. “That’s the plan, and get those guys ready for the long haul … That’s why we’re getting them ready,” Johnson said. “They were taking a lot of (first-team) reps today. They were going against the ones because they gotta get better, and I think that’s the only way they get better, to go against the best.”

On the edge, Johnson mentioned junior Caden Curry, sophomore Kenyatta Jackson, and senior Mitchell Melton as the three guys expected to fill out the rotation. He added that the hope is one of the “young guys” can become a sixth player in that rotation by the time the season arrives.

None of those young guys have had more eyes on them this spring than true freshman Eddrick Houston, who enrolled in January after signing as a five-star recruit in December. Houston fielded offers from nearly every elite program in the country before choosing to be a Buckeye, and he has the talent to push for time early. For now, Johnson is simply happy to have Houston in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center after Houston nearly flipped his commitment to Alabama minutes before signing his Letter of Intent.

“It was interesting,” Johnson said of Houston’s recruitment. “It’s just one of those things that happens in the middle of recruiting. You think you’re to the end of it and it’s all done and then, all of a sudden, there’s a pause, there’s a quietness (with the player). He just went quiet; no one could talk to him. Finally, we got to reach him and talk to him.”

Johnson added, “I think he knew where his heart was, and the heart was always here. He’s always said that, that this is where he wants to be … Coming to that decision that late in the stage scared everybody. But he called, and I went down and got Coach (Ryan) Day and said, ‘You gotta take this phone call now, we gotta go. We have to get this guy.’ But he walked in, first day in the building, and said, ‘I love this place.’ That tells you his heart has been here the whole time.”

As rumors of Houston’s wavering commitment to Ohio State began to circulate days before National Signing Day, so too did the speculation that Johnson’s age and possible retirement were being used against him in an attempt to sway Houston’s decision.

Asked about the negative recruiting, something that’s been a reality for Johnson for several years now, he said the only way to combat those attempts is to be as straightforward with players as possible.

“All I can do is tell them the truth,” Johnson said. “That’s the biggest thing, looking them in the eye and telling them this is what I’m going to do. And that question was asked many times. Every year, it gets asked, and I’ve been very honest and truthful about that. When I make the decision about what I want to do, I’ll tell them. I’m not going to recruit a guy, bring him here, and then take off. That’s just not part of my DNA, that’s not my character.

“So I try my best to be honest with kids about what I’m going to do and how I’m going to do it. And he asked me that. He said, ‘Coach, if you leave, I’m gone,’ and I reassured him I’m not going anywhere. That’s what’s important. It’s really believing in the principle of who you are as a coach. I’m not chasing money. I’m not chasing anything but greatness for my players knowing they have a chance to be special. That’s what’s important to me.”

Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.

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