Despite uncertainty in middle, Buckeyes confident about offensive line

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Paris Johnson Jr. (77) and Matt Jones (55) will be looked to to solidify Ohio State's interior offensive line next season.

The pillars are in place for the Ohio State offensive line.

Tackles Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere return after playing at an elite level last year.

The middle of the Buckeyes line, on the other hand, is unsettled. A handful — or more — of contenders are competing at center and guard. While line coach Greg Studrawa would have less consternation if starters were already determined at those spots, he is pleased to have enticing options.

It wasn’t always that way. Depth on the offensive line was a recurring issue during Urban Meyer’s tenure and continued for a few years after Studrawa arrived in 2016.

“When I got here, for the first two years I had five (capable) people,” he said Wednesday. “I stayed up at night because if somebody went down, I was like, ‘Oh boy, we better get the punt team ready.’”

The depth improved enough by last year that when three starters and top backup Paris Johnson Jr. couldn’t play against Michigan State because of COVID-19, the Buckeyes were able to win anyway with fill-ins Matthew Jones, Dawand Jones and Max Wray.

“For those kids to jump in there and play like that against a defense like that, that’s a testament to what we’ve done,” Studrawa said. “Those kids were ready to go. They knew through the whole COVID thing at any minute somebody was going to have to jump in there. But it wasn’t tested and proven until that point.”

Studrawa said that game not only gave those backups the confidence that they could fill in, but that they could compete for a starting job, as well. And so now they are.

Though the middle spots on the line aren’t determined, there are leading contenders. A natural tackle, Johnson is the clear favorite to succeed Wyatt Davis at right guard.

Harry Miller played left guard last year and was expected to move to his natural spot at center this season. But he is rehabbing from injury and not participating in team drills this spring.

Whether it’s at center or guard, Studrawa said expects Miller to be one of Ohio State’s starters in the fall.

In Miller’s absence, Matt Jones and redshirt freshman Luke Wypler have taken most of the snaps at center. Jones played effectively at left guard last year as a backup and could play there again.

“Matt is a guy that’s always had the physical tools,” Studrawa said. “He is so strong. He’s quick. But eventually, it gets to the point where it’s ‘I’m sick and tired of watching.’ And all of a sudden, the demeanor and everything you do (changes) — the toughness, the carrying out of a drill. That’s what Matt’s done. His turnaround has been amazing.”

Dawand Jones, a 6-foot-8 tackle moved to guard, also has played well this spring, Studrawa said, though he’s out with what he described as a short-term injury.

Then there are players such as Enokk Vimahi, Jakob James, Ryan Jacoby, Trey Leroux, Josh Fryar and Jack Jamieson also pushing to be in the mix.

Studrawa is grateful to have the time to work with his linemen this spring after it was cut short after only three practices last year. He said that for 11 of his players, this is their first full spring practice.

“I’m just enjoying the fact that we’ve had nine solid practices,” he said. “We can go get some technique work, and we can develop some toughness. Because until that foundation is built, you’re not going to talk about how we can do things.”

The offensive line has traditionally been the foundation of Ohio State’s potent offense. Even with uncertainty in the middle, the Buckeyes are confident that will continue.

“A lot of people have questions about the offensive line every single year,” Petit-Frere said. “It’s like, ‘How are the tackles going to do?’ or, ‘How’s the middle of the line going to do?’ It’s always our job to go and just prove people wrong. Every single one of those (interior) guys has been doing really well.

“All of these guys have shown a lot of great skill and a lot of intuition about the position they’re playing and how to be an offensive lineman. It’s been very impressive watching all those guys roll and have a great spring.”