Our Ohio State football 2021 preseason preview shifts to the defensive side of the ball with a look at the front seven.
Defensive line coach Larry Johnson should have at least 16 scholarship players, and there are many familiar faces.
Linebackers coach Al Washington has to start over with his starting lineup, but he also has several veterans to work with.
Here is how the units look heading into the preseason:
Returning starters: Haskell Garrett (tackle), Tyreke Smith (end)
Likely new starters: Zach Harrison at end and a tackle to be named later
In the mix at end: Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Tyler Friday, Noah Potter, Cormontae Hamilton, Darrion Henry-Young, Jack Sawyer, J.T. Tuimoloau
In the mix at tackle: Jaron Cage, Taron Vincent, Ty Hamilton, Antwaun Jackson, Jacolbe Cowan and Jaden McKenzie, Tyliek Williams, Michael Hall
The front is not only deep and talented but experienced. Johnson’s rotation could go two deep at all four spots without including any sophomores, and Harrison would be the only true junior.
Big things are expected of him after he flashed his five-star talent at times in 2020 (4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks) but was not able to take that next step to become a Chase Young- or Nick Bosa-type disruptor.
On the other side, Smith has also had a solid three seasons (six tackles for loss, four sacks) but is yet to hit his ceiling.
Behind those two, Jean-Baptiste and Friday are experienced but will have to hold off hard-charging true freshman Sawyer (among others) to keep their spots in the two-deep.
Inside, Garrett’s surprising decision to return after an All-American season gives Johnson a playmaker to pair with whoever he wants to plug the middle. Cage, Vincent and Jackson are all four years or more into college football and could be ready to realize their potential while Hamilton was frequently mentioned as a pleasant surprise in the spring.
Some of the ends could move inside to 3-technique, too, to further bolster the rotation inside.
Tuimoloau is a wild card in this situation as he is considered one of the top prospects in the class of 2021 but was not part of the winter or summer conditioning program or spring practice.
Returning starters: None
Likely new starters: Dallas Gant, K’Vaughn Pope, Teradja Mitchell
In the mix: Tommy Eichenberg, Cody Simon, Reid Carrico
Wild cards: Palaie Gaoteote and Steele Chambers
Gant, Pope and Mitchell are all highly recruited players who have bided their time waiting for playing time behind veterans who finished up their careers in January.
Washington has consistently sung their praises, but he could have a challenge finding playing time for all of them if the defense uses the “Bullet” position more than a true third linebacker. (See below.)
Eichenberg and Simon had by many accounts strong springs while Carrico is a four-star prospect from Ironton with a bright future.
Gaoteote is a transfer from USC whose name appears in the Ohio State student registry, but neither he nor the school have confirmed publicly he is a member of the football team. If so, he could be a candidate to jump to the front of the line for playing time or provide depth behind the seniors who have waited their turn.
Chambers spent the past two seasons at running back, but he was also regarded as a college prospect at linebacker during his recruitment. He was spotted in the latter group in a social media post from the team this summer. A position switch would make sense for him as there is a greater need for depth at linebacker than running back.
Returning starter: None
Likely new starter: Craig Young
In the mix: Ronnie Hickman and Kourt Williams
This is a hybrid position that was talked about more than seen in the first two seasons of the Ryan Day era, but spring practice indicated that could change this fall.
At 6-3 and a lean 228 pounds, Young appears to have the perfect body type for the linebacker/safety role that calls for a player who can play at the line of scrimmage, in the flat or in deep coverage. This player must be able to blitz and cover without being a liability against the run or the pass, and having a player who can do all those things allows the coaching staff to better disguise coverages than they were able to last year.
Young was recruited as an “athlete” and even considered a possible defensive end when he arrived two years ago. Hickman was a safety recruit who has bulked up to 6-1, 205 and would seem to be more of a coverage man who can play in the box.
The 6-1, 215-pound Williams could be a blend of the two, but his freshman year was wiped out last fall by a knee injury.
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