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Column: How are individual offensive linemen so versatile?

It’s nothing new at Ohio State.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Pat Elflein moved from guard to center before his senior season in 2016, it seemed a natural progression. Elflein was the most senior veteran on an experienced offensive line and, having spent time at both guard spots in the preceding seasons, including when Ohio State won its national title in 2014, he made the move with aplomb. Elflein would go on to win the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s best center in 2016.

Similarly, when Billy Price moved from guard to center before his own senior season in 2017, no one batted an eye. When Price won his own Rimington Trophy later that year, the move seemed even more genius.

(As an aside, the Big Ten has won four of the last six Rimington Trophies and nine of 22 total trophies given. Hooray for being the conference of centers!)

Paris Johnson Jr. is just the latest example of an Ohio State offensive lineman who is moving positions, shifting from right guard, where he started all 13 games in 2021, to left tackle. If past precedent is any indication, the shift should prove a boon for the collective line, even though the move from guard to tackle is less common than the reverse.

What’s interesting about Johnson compared to Elflein and Price, however, is that Johnson came to Ohio State to play left tackle, having come to Ohio State as the top-ranked offensive tackle in his recruiting class. Elflein joined the Buckeyes as a guard and Price as a defensive tackle. This move, then, is the culmination of what Johnson came to Ohio State to do rather than a shift planned as the line evolved over time.

Fans of The Blind Side (or students of football more generally) understand the critical nature of the left tackle position. For a pass-first offensive attack like Ohio State, locking down that position becomes even more relevant and even more worth moving your best interior lineman to the outside.

Last season, Nicholas Petit-Frere anchored the left tackle position, earning first team All-Big Ten and second team All-American honors. Similar to how Price stepped in to fill Elflein’s large shoes, Johnson shouldn’t miss a beat when moving back to left tackle. He brings all the fundamentals, having played the position previously, but he will not have much time for readjustment given his first matchup is against the pass rush of Notre Dame — a unit that accounted for 40 sacks last season, and that returns its top-six sack producers from 2021.

On that note, Johnson’s move becomes more salient when we remember what happened last year. Johnson will play a critical part on an offensive line that struggled to halt the likes of Aidan Hutchinson and Michigan at the end of last season. The Wolverine defensive line doesn’t show much sign of slowing down heading into 2022, anchored by defensive end Mazi Smith.

Last season against Michigan, quarterback C.J. Stroud was sacked four times. The offensive line also had five false starts and two holding calls against it in the loss to the Wolverines. It was a particularly troublesome performance for the line, considering Stroud was sacked just 13 times all season long.

As one of the most highly touted offensive line recruits in recent memory, Johnson was looked at by some as the next Orlando Pace. How he’s panned out in his first two seasons has perhaps not been on that level, but he’s got several advantages heading into 2022.

For starters, Johnson is finally playing the position he was recruited to play at left tackle. He’s also aided by a fresh coach on the offensive line in Justin Frye and is finally having a fair shot at fall camp after spending one season working through a global pandemic (which also impacted the guard lineup with changes to NCAA eligibility) and another learning the nuances of the guard position.

Johnson is widely projected as one of the top offensive line picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, a likely first-round selection alongside the quarterback he’s defending. Johnson’s status is a testament to his moving to a new position at guard and achieving such great improvement as the season wore on to earn second team All-Big Ten honors last season.

The next player up mentality is an important concept in ensuring continuity from season to season, but the offensive line takes it to a new level, because for them, it’s just the next player over.