(This is the eighth in a series looking at how the Buckeyes will be replacing their departed starters in 2023. Up next is the defensive end spot vacated by senior Zach Harrison.)
Zach Harrison could have used his COVID year of 2020 and come back for a fifth year with the Buckeyes, but he is currently looking at a day two NFL Draft grade, with an outside shot at a strong Senior Bowl sending him into the first round. There is no doubt that he will produce one of the top NFL Combine grades with his intriguing combination of size (6-6, 272), length, speed, and experience.
That experience includes 27 career starts over four years, including the last two seasons as a full-time starter. He had two starts as a true freshman, with the second of those starts coming in the playoffs against Clemson in 2019. Chase Young was lined up on the opposite end. Harrison didn’t start a game in 2020 but was still named Second-Team All-Big Ten by the conference coaches.
Harrison was named Second-Team All-Big Ten in 2021 after posting 33 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, and 3.0 sacks. He was named First-Team in 2022 following a season where he compiled 34 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, four passes broken up, three fumbles forced, and an interception.
This past season, Zach Harrison spent most of his time as the Buckeyes’ weakside defensive end opposite strong side starter JT Tuimoloau. The expectation is that Tuimoloau will stay where he is, so he won’t be mentioned here as a candidate to replace Harrison.
When Harrison was rotated out in 2022, it was mainly Jack Sawyer and Javontae Jean-Baptiste replacing him. Jean-Baptiste will be using his final year of eligibility at Notre Dame. Sawyer, meanwhile is back, and will again be in the mix at defensive end for the Buckeyes. Sawyer tied for the team lead with 4.5 sacks this year while spending time between pass rusher and the stand-up Jack linebacker position.
The Jack position can be folded into this discussion, and one of the names that was coming on last spring was Mitchell Melton. Unfortunately, Melton tore his ACL in the spring game. Whether or not he will still be in the mix at Jack remains to be seen. He wouldn’t necessarily need to be in the mix at defensive end. They can play two defensive ends and a Jack, or as they showed quite a bit this past season, Mike Hall can kick out from nose tackle to defensive end when the Jack is on the field.
In other words, there are options and a Jack doesn’t necessarily also have to also be a defensive end. And with Ohio State only playing two linebackers at a time, a full-fledged move to Jack wouldn’t necessarily a bad thing for Melton as it could also free up more snaps for Sawyer at defensive end.
Rising sophomore Caden Curry had a strong first year with the Buckeyes, and you’re not going to find anybody around the program who doesn’t see big things for him in the future. Classmates Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor are a bit behind Curry, but closing speed has always been a good trait for a defensive end to have.
True freshman Joshua Mickens will arrive in the summer, as will Jason Moore. Moore is expected to eventually kick inside to defensive tackle. If he doesn’t, he may project to more of a strong-side end anyway.
Expect the defensive ends to move around pretty freely during the spring in order to get as many reps as possible. Jack Sawyer will start out with the ones and set the standard.
This will be a fantastic opportunity for Kenyatta Jackson and Omari Abor to show what they can do. They played in a combined four games in 2022, but both were top-level recruits, so the expectations are still quite high.
Caden Curry was the lowest-rated of the Buckeyes’ defensive end class in 2022, but he enrolled early and made the most of his spring. Expect him to do the same this year. Curry played in every game this past season, earning a spot on special teams and getting reps on defense in eight games.
Mitchell Melton will be about 11 months out from his ACL tear when spring ball starts, so he should be good to go. It will be interesting to see exactly what defensive coordinator Jim Knowles and defensive line coach Larry Johnson have planned for him.
Seeing as how Jack Sawyer was the guy who generally rotated with Zach Harrison this past season, the best bet is that he is the Buckeyes’ starter on the weak side. Together, he and JT Tuimoloau should give the Ohio State defensive line their best pair of pass rushers since Chase Young and Nick Bosa in 2018. Now, that’s a lofty comparison — and one that only lasted 2.5 games — but the Buckeyes haven’t had a pair of dominating defensive ends since then. They may not necessarily dominate in 2023, but it’s pretty safe to expect them to be an incredible pain.
Behind Sawyer, that depends on how the spring and summer go. Caden Curry projects as the third defensive end, but will that be strong side or weak side? Or maybe when Sawyer is at Jack? The answer to all three of those scenarios is probably yes.
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