Ohio State Football: Can Larry Johnson produce the next sack master?

Ohio State Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson motions to players during the spring football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on April 16, 2022.Ncaa Football Ohio State Spring Game
Ohio State Buckeyes defensive line coach Larry Johnson motions to players during the spring football game at Ohio Stadium in Columbus on April 16, 2022.Ncaa Football Ohio State Spring Game /

There have been five former Buckeyes who at one point during their Ohio State football careers finished a game with four sacks. The first was Jason Simmons, who in 1991 as a sophomore, became the first Buckeye to ever accomplish this feat when he did so against Washington State. The other four are Bobby Carpenter,  Vernon Gholston, John Simon, and Chase Young.

Carpenter had his four-sack game as a senior against Michigan State in 2005, while Gholston did the same against Wisconsin during his junior campaign in 2007. Simon became the fourth when as a senior he too finished with four sacks against Wisconsin in 2012, and Young became the fifth and final Buckeye to accomplish the remarkable feat, doing so also against Wisconsin in 2019 as a junior.

Ohio State’s all-time sack leader is Mike Vrabel, who currently sits on top with 36 sacks during his four-year playing career with the Buckeyes. Chase Young came the closest to his record, finishing with 30 ½ sacks during his three years at Ohio State. Young, however, broke the single-season sack record, finishing with 16 ½ in 2019, a season in which he also was forced to sit out two games.

Last season, no one even came close to double-digit sacks. In fact, the team was led by Michael Hall Jr., an interior lineman, and Jack Sawyer. Both finished with 4 ½ in limited playing time. In 2021, the Buckeyes were led in the sack department by interior lineman Haskell Garrett, who finished with 5 ½ sacks.

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We won’t complain too much about the sack output in 2020. The COVID-shortened season hampered everyone from stuffing the stat sheet, but at least the team was led by a defensive end instead of an interior lineman as Jonathon Cooper finished with 3 ½ sacks in eight games.

So why the drop-off in sack production? I don’t believe Larry Johnson has forgotten how to coach and develop talent, although at the end of the day, he is still responsible for both when it comes to the defensive line. The lack of sack production is twofold.

First, the defensive secondary hasn’t been as good. The reason a quarterback holds onto the ball is that no one is open. Ohio State’s secondary play since the departure of Jeff Okudah in 2019 hasn’t been good enough. Second, more and more Big 10 teams are running a spread offense instead of the traditional ground and pound. This gives the quarterback more options, and with the drop in play from the secondary, it creates a much more difficult time for the defensive line to get home.

Don’t get me wrong, there have been plenty of times an opposing quarterback has dropped back and has been able to stand in the pocket surveying the field for far too long. This is the defensive line’s fault for not producing enough pressure in those instances.

One reason this is happening too much, in my opinion, is because Johnson is rotating his guys in at the wrong times, leaving his best players on the sideline during crucial times. I understand that criticizing a legend like Johnson isn’t popular, but when a game is on the line and you look at the players on the defensive line, and none of them are statistical leaders, you have no choice but to question why.

If Sawyer, Hall Jr., Tyleik Williams, or J.T. Tuimoloau are going to become the next great sack master at the Ohio State football program, then Johnson is going to need to rotate less. They are also going to need the defensive backfield to return to the days of DBU.

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That’s a big ask for the 2023 season, but if Ohio State is going to beat their rival Michigan, win a Big 10 Championship, and return to the College Football Playoff, then this is exactly what needs to happen.