Freshmen defensive linemen Jack Sawyer and J.T. Tuimoloau might have taken different paths to Columbus ahead of their first seasons, but both could soon find themselves on the fast track to playing time as Ohio State inches closer to the start of the 2021 campaign.
As camp wages on for the fourth-ranked Buckeyes, the five-star duo wasted no time in making a case to be included in defensive line coach Larry Johnson’s vaunted Rushmen Package, which will already include the return of Tyreke Smith, Zach Harrison and Javontae Jean-Baptiste.
For Sawyer, a Pickerington North graduate and January early enrollee, his camp performance comes as no surprise after an impressive performance in Ohio State’s spring game on April 17. In the case of Tuimoloau, however, his rising stock speaks directly to just how prepared for the college game he already was despite arriving in Columbus late last month.
“One thing about (Tuimoloau), he came to town in great shape. You don’t come in and start and get where he’s going unless you’re in great shape, so he did a great job of doing that,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “He has a really high football IQ, so he can really understand the football game. He’s a video guy, he’s a study guy, and I think that’s why he’s starting to advance so fast because he has some things that you have to have if you want to be an elite player. But his work ethic is off the charts.”
Tuimoloau wrapped up his lengthy recruitment on July 4 by committing to Ohio State, affording him just weeks to adjust to his new home in Columbus prior to the start of camp. Now 13 practices into his first preseason, the 6-foot-4 product of Edgewood, Washington is already turning the heads of his teammates in the defensive line room despite the vast learning curve he faces.
“He’s really mature. It seems he came in and knew what he wanted to do, what he wanted to accomplish,” Harrison said. “He doesn’t act like a freshman. He acts like he’s a veteran guy almost. He’s still a freshman. He’s going to make freshman mistakes and do freshman things, but he’s gotten better every day.”
Harrison added, “J.T. is big and strong and athletic. Those are probably his biggest assets. He’s still a freshman so he’s still growing into his body. He’s got a lot of room to fill out, and it’s going to be a huge asset for the Buckeyes in the coming years.”
Defensive tackle Haskell Garrett said of Tuimoloau, “He’s great. He’s a student of the game. He kind of reminds me of me when I was a freshman, just trying to soak up everything and learn. He’s just a really good student of the game and just wants to be the best person he can be on and off the field.”
While both Tuimoloau and Sawyer were already likely to push for meaningful snaps at some point this season, the loss of junior defensive end Tyler Friday to an undisclosed but season-threatening injury has opened up each of their avenues to playing time even further. Johnson said prior to the spring game that he would find a role for Sawyer this season if he continues to progress, and when asked on Tuesday if Tuimoloau could contribute this season, he said, “I hope he can.”
However, like all of the Buckeye greats who have come through his program, Johnson said there will still be plenty of difficulties along the way that the freshmen must embrace as they work toward greatness.
“It’s still a learning process, it really is. To get to go play college football and be ready to play in the first game and big-time games, there are some growing pains they have to go through,” Johnson said. “They’re working at it. I’m really happy with where they are right now in terms of where their work is — great work habits and great students of the game — but it’s going to take time.”
Johnson went on to say, “I think they’re well prepared. They’re good athletes. But just like all those great players, I tell people all the time that it’s a process. It just doesn’t happen overnight. You have to go through things every day. Everything J.T. and Jack are doing, they’re learning for the first time, and that’s going to take time to figure out that process and become elite players. You just have to hold tight and watch and see how they develop moving forward.”
Through the growing pains, Sawyer and Tuimoloau appear poised to expedite the process to impactful playing time this season, giving Ohio State added weapons up front and ushering in a new era of Rushmen for Johnson and defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs.
As Smith put it, “The sky is the limit for them. (They have) all the tools, all the intangibles that they need to be a great pass rusher and a defensive end here and at the next level. All they have to do is just hone in. They work hard, they’re great kids, and cool to be around. I just think they’re going to be great.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.