Ohio State football preseason questions: Can Justin Frye prod offensive line improvement?

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

Editor's note: This is the third in a series of six stories looking at the most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2022 season.

Justin Frye is not the highest-profile assistant coach Ohio State added this offseason.

Defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is. Ryan Day hired Knowles to be his “head coach of the defense,” and Ohio State is paying Knowles $1.9 million, so he isn't just another assistant. Whether Knowles can fix the Buckeyes’ defense is perhaps the main storyline of the season.

New Ohio State offensive line coach Justin Frye hopes to help the Buckeyes add to their 45.7 points-per-game average from a year ago.

But other than Knowles, Frye might be the Buckeye assistant coach who most needs to be successful for Ohio State to reach its potential. Frye comes to Ohio State from Big Ten rival UCLA – OK, not Big Ten rival just yet – with a mandate to improve the Buckeyes’ offensive line.

While Ohio State led the country in scoring (45.7 points per game) and total yards (561.5 per game) last year, some advanced statistics revealed weaknesses up front. When Ohio State needed to run the ball in short-yardage situations, it was stuffed far too often.

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The Buckeyes’ run game as a whole regressed late in 2021. OSU managed only 90 yards on 30 carries against Nebraska. Then came the Michigan debacle when weather hindered the passing game, and Ohio State gained only 64 yards on 30 rushes.

Issues such as that caused Day to part ways with Greg Studrawa and hire Frye. Day and Frye are both proteges of Chip Kelly and worked together at Boston College and Temple.

Ohio State offensive line coach Justin Frye works with the linemen during a March practice at the Woody Hayes Athletics Center.

Last year’s run-game issues aren’t so surprising when you consider that both guards in 2021 – Thayer Munford and Paris Johnson – are natural tackles, and center Luke Wypler was expected to be a backup until Harry Miller’s mental-health struggles caused him to step away from the team.

Johnson is now at left tackle and is a projected first-round draft pick next spring. Mammoth Dawand Jones is back at right tackle, with fifth-year senior Matt Jones at right guard and sophomore Donovan Jackson, a five-star recruit, at left guard.

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Day continually mentioned offensive line depth as a worry during the spring. Enokk Vimahi impressed, but injuries and inexperience among other linemen made Day uneasy. Frye is hopeful that players such as Josh Fryar, Jakob James, Zen Michalski and Ben Christman are ready to emerge. It’ll be Frye’s job to make that happen.

It helps that this year’s line is an experienced one. It doesn’t have a five-year player like Munford, but Dawand Jones will be a second-year starter. Matt Jones was effective enough filling in to earn honorable mention All-Big Ten last year.

The line appears to be a hungry one.

“Paris and Dawand and all those guys that are in the back of their career now, they're locked in,” Frye said in May. “I get videos and calls from Dawand at home right now when he's on his break. 'Coach, I'm doing this set. Is this good?' They're workers. They just want to be great.

“Having experience, you'd love to have that every year. Obviously, you can't. But there are a lot of snaps over there with some really good players, so that's exciting.”

Frye’s background with Day also should ease his transition.

“There's a learning curve when you come into a new place,” he said. “Having history with him, kind of growing up in the business a little bit (together), knowing his vision he has makes it a lot easier.”

Frye said the goal for his unit is for it to be “felt.” In other words, he wants it to be able to impose its will, even if everyone in the stadium knows that a run is coming on third-and-2.

“It's something that's tangible,” he said. “That's when you're cooking.”

The on-field success is only part of the equation. Frye knows he must recruit at a high level. In Studrawa’s last two recruiting classes, only Jackson was above 244th nationally in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.

“It's all about relationships,” Frye said. “You’ve got to identify the kids that you know can play for you and uphold the standards you have here. Then how do you go get those guys? For me, it’s not with cool Instagram edits or dancing or music or whatever that stuff is.

“You’ve got to go in and hit the ground running with the high school coach, with the parents, with the mentors, with whoever's helping that kid in that decision. Does this (Block O) logo help? Absolutely. You're going after a higher-caliber kid. But he’s still a kid you have to build (a relationship with) the right way and try to get him to want to choose here.”

Bill Rabinowitz covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at brabinowitz@dispatch.com or on Twitter @brdispatch.

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