Ohio State football: Larry Johnson juggling parts as defensive line rotation starts to come together

Ohio State associate coach/defensive line coach Larry Johnson has learned a lot in 25 years as a college coach.

One of those lessons: More is always better when it comes to defensive line rotations.

He wants to go eight deep, and he’ll go farther if he can.

Heading into the preseason, he felt like he had a pair of players at all four spots on the defensive line, but that is no longer the case.

Senior end Tyler Friday will miss a chunk of the season with an unidentified injury, an unfortunate development for the New Jersey native but one Ohio State’s roster is well-equipped to absorb thanks in no small part to Johnson’s acumen as a recruiter.

He still has three veterans with playing experience to start his rotation on the outsize — Zach Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Javonte Jean-Baptiste — so the cupboard is far from bare, but someone has to earn that spot in the rotation before the Buckeyes open the season at Minnesota on Sept. 2.

The next guy up could be Jack Sawyer or J.T. Tuimoloau, but Johnson said both five-star freshmen are still very much in the development phase.

“It’s still a learning process, it really is,” Johnson said of the duo. “To get to go play college football and be ready to play in the first game and a big-time game, there’s there’s some growing pains you have to go through. They’re working at it. I’m really happy where they are right now in terms of where their work is. They’ve got great work habits, are great students of the game, so it’s time, it’s gonna take time.”

The quality of the first two opponents also raises the stakes to a certain extent.

Rather than being able to ease the youngsters into action against a lesser opponent, Johnson has to feel comfortable with them being able to handle a Minnesota offensive line that is big and experienced.

Sawyer, a long-time commit from nearby Pickerington North High School who enrolled in the winter after skipping his senior season, and Tuimoloau, who joined the program this summer after graduating from high school in Washington State, bring different skill sets to the game.

“Jack is a quick, very explosive player,” Johnson said. “J.T. is just the opposite: explosive quick and powerful. I mean he can play on top of an end in a 6-technique and then knock the line of scrimmage back, so he’s got great lower body strength. Jack is a finesse guy. He will find a way to beat you, and he’s a highly competitive guy. So that’s what I like about both of them.”

Inside, Johnson still has a veteran four-some to lean on at nose tackle and 3-technique.

All will play, but he has not decided who will start and who will come off the bench.

“We’re not quite there yet,” Johnson said. “We’ve got some guys inside in Antwuan Jackson and Haskell Garrett. Taron Vincent has really had a great camp, and then Jarron Cage is there, so you’ve got four solid guys there.”

He also name-checked true freshmen Tyleik Williams and Michael Hall Jr. while identifying Noah Potter as a candidate for the rotation after the sophomore moved inside from end.

“We’ve got some guys that we can hopefully plug in as we go forward,” Johnson said.

In all, Johnson has 18 scholarship defensive linemen to oversee, a diverse group that ranges from those hot-shot true freshmen to Jackson, a sixth-year senior who accepted the NCAA’s offer of a free year of eligibility in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

With returning starters looking to make the next step to stardom, veterans preparing for more playing time than they have had before, youngsters trying to crash the party, and a handful of guys trying to figure out if they fit in at all, does Johnson’s experience come in handy this preseason?

“It really does, but I think the biggest question is, ‘Who’s behind them?’” Johnson said. “That’s my push. Like I’ve gotta get the next guy ready, you know what I mean? Because something could happen, so my push is to get the young players ready as quick as possible because you never know when they’ll be in the game. So it gives me flexibility, gives me some chances to move the dots a little bit because they’re so veteran, and that’s been really fun. And they can set the bar for me in practice.”

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