Why Nick Bosa and college football's deepest defensive line give Ohio State a chance to win it all

COLUMBUS, Ohio – In ranking the Ohio State football team from No. 1 to No. 85 in terms of pure talent and long-term NFL potential, sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa would be a safe pick to top the list. Bosa arrived at Ohio State regarded as the top defensive end recruit in the country, and the feeling among the coaching staff is that his career trajectory is ahead of his big brother, Joey Bosa. The elder Bosa, of course, twice earned consensus All-American honors, went No. 3 overall in the NFL draft and won Defensive Rookie of the Year.

When the defense for No. 2 Ohio State runs out on the field at Indiana on Thursday night, Nick Bosa is expected to be standing on the sideline. While Bosa will play starter snaps and expects to deliver starter production, his technical status as a backup offers a window into the country’s most talented and intriguing position group.

All four of Ohio State’s defensive ends – senior Tyquan Lewis, senior Jalyn Holmes, redshirt junior Sam Hubbard and Bosa – project as NFL starters someday. It wouldn’t be a surprise if three of them end up as first-round NFL selections. The four Ohio State ends are a trash-talking, swashbuckling and chops-busting group known to scour opponents’ Instagram and Twitter feeds for material. Their personalities are as varied as their skill sets – Old Country (Lewis), Sam Squarepants (Hubbard), The Instigator (Holmes) and Lil Bosa. There’s a fraternal quality between them, as they poke fun at Lewis’ fading hairline, Hubbard’s teacher-pet tendencies, Holmes’ trash talk and Bosa’s surfer ethos. “Party at the quarterback,” Lewis said. “We just can’t wait to show off our skills.”

Ohio State’s crew of ends has been coached, developed and refined by Larry Johnson, a soft-spoken 66-year-old assistant coach. Bosa endearingly compares Johnson to Yoda, as he’s earned all the linemen’s respect and trust with his experience and wisdom. Johnson has nurtured a culture so nuanced and special that the oversized talents and personalities are willing to sacrifice statistics and status for the unit. “There’s a love for each other,” Johnson said, “that’s genuine.”

Johnson never cusses, as he’ll yell something like, “Oh, Santa Claus” instead of a cursing cousin. Hubbard issues perhaps the highest compliment to Johnson, that the linemen play not to disappoint him as opposed to fearing his wrath. It’s a vibe that leaves no room for selfishness. “Focusing and worrying about who’s starting and not [starting] would be so irrelevant to our success,” Hubbard said, “it’s not even a thought.”

Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa sheds an Indiana blocker during a game last season. (AP)
Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa sheds an Indiana blocker during a game last season. (AP)

While all four linemen can’t start, they’ll unite on the field for what can be considered the most intimidating package in college football. When Ohio State goes to a nickel defense on obvious passing downs, all four ends spread across the line of scrimmage in what’s nicknamed “The Rushmen” package. The trickiest part is that all four defensive ends from the deepest position group in college football bring a little something different.

Nick Bosa (6-foot-4, 270-pound sophomore) – On the roof of a swanky Chicago hotel during Joey Bosa’s draft party in 2016, Nick Bosa approached Urban Meyer, strength coach Mickey Marotti and Johnson with a simple message: “I want you to know, I’m not expecting to be treated any different because I’m a Bosa,” he declared. He proceeded to produce like a Bosa, compiling five sacks, seven tackles for loss and freshman All-America honors.

Joey occasionally put the bro in Big Brother during his Ohio State career. He stopped living with Ezekiel Elliott after they partied too much and was suspended for the opener against Virginia Tech his final season. “I love that I have Joey ahead of me to really go through it,” Nick Bosa said. “He paved the way, got all the bumps out of the way for me.”

There are plenty of similarities. Meyer points to a motor and skill set he calls “ridiculous,” as Bosa can contort his 270-pound frame like Gumby. Meyer admires his ability to play with power and suddenly “get skinny” on linemen to dart past them. “He can run parallel to the ground and not fall on his face,” said Hubbard. “It’s amazing.”

While Nick Bosa sang the chorus of Kumbaya about splitting snaps with his fellow ends – “I want everyone to have success and those guys to get drafted” – he wasn’t shy about projecting his own production this season. “I’m not looking to take a backseat,” he said. “I’m looking for a huge year. I’ll just do it in whatever role I have.”

Since Nick enrolled early, Johnson said he’s ahead of where Joey was at this stage. Nick Bosa also inherited his brother’s penchant for bluntness, as he predicted a production jump in his sophomore year because of his skill development – hands, hips and eliminating a stutter at the line. “I’m over the whole ‘try and be like Joey’ thing,” he said. “I never really felt it that much. I think I’m doing just fine. I think the jump I made this spring was similar to the jump he made his junior year.”

Meyer calls Nick “a little more mature” than Joey, but says they share a lot of endearing qualities. “Just the way Nick walks, the way he talks,” Meyer said. “Obviously, I love them both.”

He then smiled and added: “I’m trying to talk the Bosas into having one more.”

Tyquan Lewis (6-foot-4, 265-pound senior) – His go-to move is known in the Ohio State defensive line room as the “Long Arm From Hell.” And it looks like it sounds, a powerful thrust into the upper shoulder of an opposing tackle that often ends with an opponent’s derriere on the turf. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone stop it,” Hubbard said. “He definitely has the power.”

Lewis led the Buckeyes in sacks the past two years, stiff-arming his way to totals of eight in both 2015 and 2016 and winning the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of The Year in 2016. Scouts considered him in the neighborhood of a second-round pick, but it’s a tricky projection in a historically good year for defensive ends. He’s worked on flexibility to complement his power, which should help him bull rush into the first round. His return established him as a clear-cut team leader. “He’s the master in the room,” Johnson said. “He may talk in that country tongue, but they all listen to him.”
Lewis jokes that the biggest sacrifice in staying in Columbus comes from the lack of good barbeque. He hails from Tarboro, N.C., and has the vinegar-based tastes to prove it.

“People talk about barbeque, and I’m thinking coleslaw and chopped-up pig,” he said. “And they’re thinking ribs and burgers.”

Ask Lewis about any good local barbeque spots in Columbus and a deep sigh comes before an answer: “There’s no such thing. You got to go to North Carolina to get it.”

Jalyn Holmes (6-foot-5, 270-pound senior) – Last year against Indiana, Holmes sidled up to one of the Hoosier offensive linemen with a message. “I felt like his outfit didn’t match on his last Instagram post, so I just reminded him,” Holmes recalled with a laugh, “I said, ‘Yeah bro, your Instagram post is kinda corny.'”

Teammates aren’t spared, either, as Holmes relishes his role as team instigator. He exclusively calls senior offensive linemen Billy Price “William” – a name he hates – to stir things up in walkthroughs. “He’s the igniter!” Lewis said with a laugh.

Ohio State defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis plays against Indiana during a game last season. (AP)
Ohio State defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis plays against Indiana during a game last season. (AP)

If the Ohio State team had a soundtrack, Holmes would certainly be the lead vocalist, from the locker room to the defensive line room to the practice field. Holmes has established himself around the program as more than a chatterbox, however. “He hasn’t started a game yet and he’s got the best attitude on the team,” Bosa said. “He’s one of the most unselfish people I’ve ever met.”

Holmes played 400 snaps on defense for the Buckeyes last year and registered nine TFLs, epitomizing how the backups play starter roles. He’s supersized for an end, but still nimble enough that his signature move is a speed rush followed by a spin. “It’s like he’s dancing on the field,” Lewis said. “He doesn’t have any rhythm in real life, but he can dance on the field because that spin comes out of nowhere.”

Holmes projects as a mid-round NFL pick but has the most runway of all the Buckeye linemen to boost his stock with a strong senior year. Rest assured, he’s set to make some noise. “That’s when we play the best, when we’re smiling, talking a little smack too,” he said. “That’s what I can’t wait for.”

Sam Hubbard (6-foot-5, 265-pound redshirt junior) – Lewis and Holmes tease him about being a “clean-cut guy” who listens to gangsta rap. Bosa calls him a “teacher’s pet” but acknowledges an on-field mean streak. Hubbard is a delightful blur of contrasts; one of the most respected yet playfully teased Buckeyes. “Super Bowl Sam,” Bosa said, recalling another nickname. “He’s always giving a maximum effort, even if it’s walkthrough against the scout team.”

Hubbard will likely start opposite Lewis to open the year, a tribute to both their years served and production. Hubbard started every game last season, finished with eight TFLs and his hallmarks are positional flexibility and technical precision. The mastery of the position comes from arriving as a 205-pound former lacrosse midfielder, as he lacked any bad habits. From there, Super Bowl Sam learned as diligently as his nickname suggests while putting on 60 pounds. “Everything we gave him was for the first time,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to do it like this.'”

These days, Hubbard can play linebacker, on the edge or as a down lineman. The versatility will help him in the eyes of the NFL, as he’s considered a prospect who could end up going late in the first or in the second round. In what’s expected to be his final season in Columbus, Hubbard will particularly relish the chance to play inside in Ohio State’s Rushmen package. “Beating a guard,” he said, “is so much easier than beating a tackle.”

How good can the Rushmen be this year? “Each one of us has just improved so much,” he said, “it’s going to be scary.”

That’s a fitting transition to perhaps the most intriguing long-term prospect of Ohio State’s loaded defensive end group. True freshman Chase Young, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound end, has flashed enough talent that he’s going to will his way into reps. Marotti said Young is so physically developed that multiple NFL scouts have asked him this summer, “Who’s the JUCO transfer?” Lewis is so impressed by Young’s physical maturity that he jokes, “he makes me look like I don’t belong.”

Combine Young with redshirt sophomore tackle Dre’Mont Jones, who NFL scouts say has already garnered first-round buzz, and senior leader Tracy Sprinkle, and the entire unit epitomizes how Meyer sought to raise the level of line play up to the SEC upon arriving in Columbus in 2012. “The biggest thing Larry has done a great job of is really teaching these guys why 40 great plays, going as hard as you can, is better than 65 with 12 or 14 exhaustion plays,” defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “They really have bought into the philosophy of hockey waves coming at you.”

And starting Thursday night, they’ll be coming at Indiana.