When Larry Johnson thinks back on the role Tommy Togiai played on the interior of Ohio State’s defensive line last season, he thinks about his strength.
“He was so powerful inside, you could hardly move him,” Johnson said.
But as the Buckeyes search this offseason for a replacement for Togiai at nose tackle, muscle is not the only consideration.
Johnson, the team’s veteran defensive line coach, sees other traits as valuable for an interior lineman who lines up at nose.
“That guy’s got to be a powerful guy,” Johnson said. “He’s got to be smart. He’s got to understand protections.
“We like a bigger guy, but I’ll take quickness over big to make sure we can make a difference in the line of scrimmage. We want to knock the line of scrimmage. That’s what we ask that nose to do, to create a new line of scrimmage and make the ball bounce.”
In returning for another season — using the additional year of eligibility given to all players by the NCAA because of the coronavirus pandemic — Antwuan Jackson offers the Buckeyes some speed at the position.
“He’ll give us more movement on the inside,” Johnson said.
Appearing in all eight games last season, Jackson totaled 11 tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage, and a sack.
He’s one of the several candidates who could step in at nose for Togiai next season, paired alongside Haskell Garrett. Others include fellow veterans Jerron Cage and Taron Vincent.
Cage filled in at nose tackle during the loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff championship game when Togiai was sidelined following a positive COVID-19 test.
While the least experienced of the bunch, Vincent joined the program in 2018 with the highest pedigree, the top-ranked defensive tackle in his recruiting class and son of former NFL Pro Bowl cornerback Troy Vincent.
Speaking with reporters during a Zoom call on Friday, Johnson seemed pleased with all of their development through three weeks of spring practice.
“I’m really happy with where we are right now with our guys on the inside,” he said, “and how hard they’re working to make a difference.”
Vincent has taken significant strides this offseason.
Coach Ryan Day called him the most improved defensive linemen earlier this week and said he graded as a champion during winter strength and conditioning workouts.
It was enough progress that it prompted Day to forecast a breakout season for Vincent.
“His play has been excellent,” Day added. “He’s definitely playing his best football.”
A shoulder injury in 2019 stalled some of his development, prompting him to redshirt as a sophomore.
His recovery from the injury carried over into 2020 and affected his preparation for last season, even though he appeared in six games.
A months-long shutdown last spring also hindered rehab.
“I wasn’t really able to get the full amount of treatment that I possibly needed,” Vincent said. “We were shut down, so I wasn’t in the facility. That was a little struggle and kind of delayed everything. When we got back, I was behind.”
Johnson sees his improved health as the biggest reason for a jump.
“He’s in a great position right now,” Johnson said. “He’s what we thought he would be when we brought him in and recruited him. He’s having a great spring because he’s healthy. He’s playing fast, he’s strong at the point of attack.”
Vincent might ultimately end up as a “three-technique,” rotating with Garrett at the defensive tackle position that lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard rather than between the guard and center.
But he is lining up at both spots this spring, learning to fill in at either spot as needed.
“All the d-tackles can play three-technique or nose,” Vincent said. “We all can interchange. That definitely elevates our games to be able to play both positions.”