I am not going to build suspense with this intro. The answer to “Does Ohio State have an offensive line problem?” is at least a firm “maybe.” I would even lean toward a definitive yes, but it is far too early in the offseason to take a turn to Negative Town. However, if lack of depth and starting experience (and things of that nature) make you skittish, well then, you might want to look away. From Columbus at least.
Because in just over 24 hours – beginning at 12 noon ET on Tuesday and concluding around 1 p.m. ET Wednesday – Ohio State lost a former five-star recruit turned consensus All-American, a multi-year starter at center, and a mountain of a man who goes by the nickname of Big Thanos. That’s right: Thanos from Marvel, but bigger, badder, and better at rag-dolling defensive linemen. Oh, and they all belonged to the same position group. A position group that protected C.J. Stroud, back-to-back Heisman finalist and prolific thrower of the football. These guys were personal security for Stroud and also performed quite well in the run game... You can argue rushing efficiency and poke holes all you want, but I would pin late-season issues on overall execution and gameplan — not poor run blocking by those departing for the NFL.
So with Paris Johnson Jr., Luke Wypler, and Dawand Jones all set to move on, who exactly will be taking their place(s) in the Buckeyes’ starting lineup? That is one hell of a question! Perhaps even an $800,000 dollar question. And I’m not sure anyone or any OSU coach has the answer, including offensive line coach Justin Frye.
Now, to be fair: It is January. Ohio State just finished its 2022-23 season about 15 minutes ago, and the announcements of Johnson Jr. (PJJ), Wypler, and Jones came in pretty quick succession. Said announcements were also anticipated. At least they should have been, with the possible exception of Wypler’s. The outgoing trio combined to start dozens of games over the last two seasons, earned plenty of accolades, nearly helped topple the defending champs and made themselves plenty of (future) money in the process. It is/was time to go, and Buckeye Nation should remember them fondly.
But OSU is not merely faced with replacing three high-end starters up front. No, they are tasked with replacing three players who took nearly all of the snaps at their respective positions... For two years running. The notable exception is PJJ who split time between left guard and left tackle. But he was replaced at LG by Donovan Jackson; one of only two remaining starters from this season. He (Jackson) and Matt Jones Jr., who announced his own return on Wednesday, suddenly form a very small core of OL who are both returning and experienced. Those two in particular have played exactly zero snaps at center and/or tackle, where all of the experience is being vacated. Therein lies the problem.
Replacing quality starters is never (eh, rarely) easy. And every college football program endures growing pains when it comes time to do so. But in an effort to combat eventual roster turnover, most programs make a concerted effort to find or even create meaningful reps for their backups. Ohio State coaches, on the other hand, rarely go out of their way to sub during the first three to three and a half quarters — even during blowouts. Now Ryan Day’s team will be forced to confront a reality in which their next wave of OL starters is incredibly green. Or wet behind the ears, because they have spent their entire careers watching!
OSU has faced similar situations before. Even this season, Jaxon Smith-Njigba was the only returning starter at wide receiver. And gone from the left side of the OL were Nicholas Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford, to be replaced by Johnson Jr. and Jackson. But the difference at WR was and is incoming talent. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Ebguka were waiting in the wings, both of whom were elite HS recruits and performed well in a damn Rose Bowl just months prior! Because Brian Hartline collects talent like the other Thanos collects infinity stones, his group is always ready to reload. The Buckeyes’ OL is a different story.
Frye’s OL options are a bit more limited, primarily due to his predecessor’s waning ability to recruit. On top of that, he will now be tasked with making his first “real” decisions in Columbus. Because heading into 2022, any decision(s) regarding how to replace NPF and Munford was already made for him: PJJ could move back to his old position, and Jackson was just a flat-out upgrade. It was not a natural transition so much as an obvious choice. But the same luxury does not exist this offseason. Frye is staring down the barrel of a depleted room, at the very least in terms of experience.
There should be at least some level of concern surrounding this dearth of depth, which Buckeye coaches have seemingly confirmed. I say this because Ohio State has been aggressive (for them) in targeting OL via the transfer portal. We know they extended offers to four OT, including Rhode Island transfer Ajani Cornelius and Washington State’s Jarrett Kingston. And we assume they have had conversations with others. But so far, there have been no experienced additions, and P5 talent in the portal is becoming more and more sparse.
How bleak is the situation? We have no idea. Neither do the coaches, and frankly, it may not be a situation worth worrying about. Because OSU has talent everywhere, including OL. We should not dismiss the potential of guys like Tegra Tshabola, Ben Christman, and Zen Michalski. The same goes for Josh Fryar and Enokk Vimahi, who have already proven themselves when given the opportunity.
But this definitely feels like starting over. And starting over can be scary, even at a place like Ohio State. The good news is that Frye and his big dogs up front have an entire offseason to work and improve, and eventually figure this thing out. Will next year’s OL be just as good as it was in 2022? Maybe, maybe not. But there is no reason to believe it will be worse... At least not yet. Because Frye might just do what his predecessor could not: Consistently get the absolute best out of his guys.