It is probably the most intense position battle on the Ohio State offense, and perhaps the most intriguing.
Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said Wednesday that it was too early to project the starters on the offensive line, but four of the spots are pretty easy to predict: Thayer Munford at left tackle, Jonah Jackson at left guard, Josh Myers at center and Wyatt Davis at right guard.
But the right tackle spot remains up for grabs between Branden Bowen and Nicholas Petit-Frere.
“I think when you look at it right now, it's probably really close,” coach Ryan Day said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “It's probably neck and neck.”
Both are intelligent, thoughtful guys who have endured very different challenges.
Bowen is a fifth-year senior from Utah, Petit-Frere a redshirt freshman from Tampa, Florida.
Bowen ranked only 543rd nationally in the 2015 recruiting class. Petit-Frere was Ohio State’s top-ranked player and seventh nationally in the 2018 recruiting class.
Bowen won the right guard spot in training camp two years ago and played well until his season ended with a gruesome injury against Maryland in which he broke both the fibula and tibia in his left leg. He has endured a long, difficult recovery.
“It was brutal,” he said. “It's a lot more mental than it is physical. You have your good days, you have your bad days. It's just important for people to remember to just keep pushing through because there's a light at the end of that tunnel.”
It wasn’t until this spring that Bowen and Buckeyes coaches believed he was completely recovered and trusting in his leg. He entered camp determined to make the most of his last season.
“The week leading up to it, we had some time off and I was sitting at home thinking, ‘Man, this is it, like, I gotta go now.’ I don't have a choice. I’ve got to play or look past football," Bowen said. "So I had to make that choice to come and compete for a starting job and just keep pushing for it.”
Petit-Frere has faced a much different physical task to put himself in position to start. Gifted with size and athleticism, Frere enrolled at Ohio State in June 2018 weighing 268 pounds — and that’s after he chugged water to add a few pounds right before his weigh-in.
He has been on a mission to gain weight and has added about 30 pounds through a diet that now mandates 6,000 calories per day and has been as much as 8,000. That means up to six meals a day, plenty of snacks the envy of much of the population that would love permission to eat almost anything.
It hasn’t been as much fun as you might think. One of the Buckeyes’ mantras is to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. For Petit-Frere, that meant he had to keep stuffing his face.
“I would just eat and be like, OK, I'm done,” he said, “and they're like, no, you're not, so there'd be a lot of times where I’m like forcing it down.”
Petit-Frere said he has maintained his agility while adding bulk and strength.
“He's big and strong and physical now, Studrawa said. "He’s had the time to learn the position, and now he's starting to take off.”
Offensive line depth has been a problem for years at Ohio State, but this year. Studrawa raves about his depth. At tackle, the capable Josh Alabi is Munford’s backup.
“I think there's four tackles that would start anywhere in this league and in a lot of places that I have the benefit of having — four,” Studrawa said.
Teams usually prefer to establish a starting five among linemen to establish cohesion. But Day and Studrawa said the Buckeyes might rotate Bowen and Petit-Frere, at least to start the season.
“Every day is the greatest competition,” Petit-Frere said. “Bowen, Josh and Thayer, they're some of the best tackles I've ever seen. They've been amazing to play with and learn from and then also compete with for the starting tackle spots.”