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‘Burning Questions’: What is the best lineup on Ohio State’s offensive line?

Who are the best five the Buckeyes can put up front?

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about the most important questions yet unanswered for the season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our “Burning Questions” articles here.

Ohio State’s recent run of offensive lines has been a mixed bag when it comes to personnel groupings. Under coach Greg Studrawa, there was always a combination of highly ranked recruits and long-term developmental prospects. As his tenure went on, the number of elite prospects dwindled, leaving the Buckeyes in a suspect place going into year two under new offensive line coach Justin Frye.

Frye inherited Studrawa’s last two blue chippers in Donovan Jackson, who he’ll have for another year, and Paris Johnson Jr., who ended up being a top-10 pick in this past NFL Draft. This year, the offensive line is going to have a different look with three new starters, and limited options to bridge the gap between the end of Studrawa and the beginning of Frye. Looking at the roster, there is a list of options to take on the open roles, but no obvious NFL-level players outside of Jackson.

The two returnees are the aforementioned Donovan Jackson and multi-year contributor Matt Jones, who played opposite Jackson at right guard. Jones brings a lot of experience and is one of the oldest players on the roster going into his sixth season at Ohio State. He was recruited as a center but found playing time last season at guard. He was solid but will need to take a step forward to get to the lynchpin status needed to create stability on the line. Frye worked the portal, bringing in Joshua Simmons and Victor Cutler to the fold to provide depth as well as additional competition.

There are a handful of guys competing for the three remaining jobs. Josh Fryar is the presumed left tackle. His experience is as a right tackle and an additional lineman in heavy packages. Across at right tackle is a battle between Zen Michalski, who is entering his fourth year in the program, and redshirt freshman Tegra Tshabola, who was a top-100 recruit. They’ll be trying to hold off transfer Joshua Simmons who Frye recruited himself out of high school. The last spot is the center position, which is being battled for by Jakub James, who was out the spring, and former highly-ranked prospect Carson Hinzman entering his second year.

This leaves the Buckeyes in a peculiar place, and leaves the burning question — what is the best lineup for Ohio State on the offensive line? The Buckeyes will have to decide between leaning on older bodies or diving into the young talent Frye recently recruited.

The Old Guard

Physical development along the offensive line is arguably the most important aspect of the position in college football. There are rare instances where freshmen come in and contribute immediately, but most of the time offensive linemen need at least two years on campus before they are expected to contribute. Even recent first-round draft pick Paris Johnson Jr. didn’t contribute until his sophomore season.

It takes a special talent on the offensive line to start their first or second year in the program. That to me may lead to Ohio State finding a way to get their most seasoned offensive line onto the field. With Hinzman and Tshabola in their second years, there are still some elder statesmen they need to outperform to get into the starting lineup.

There’s no question Donovan Jackson and Matt Jones are in the starting lineup. The experience puts them in this category. Looking at the vacant center position, Jakub James was out this spring. He has been in the system for longer than Hinzman. This may not mean James has more upside at the position, but even after missing spring that knowledge from the time in the program is incredibly valuable at center.

At tackle, Michalski has managed to contribute sparingly over the past two seasons. He has the game time to show he belongs at the DI level. He may not be the flashiest option, but the former four-star recruit gives Ohio State a proven body for the position. The left tackle position is basically settled, but Josh Fryar still fits into this profile.

To me this group, the in-program time takes precedent, meaning the transfers in Joshua Simmons and Victor Cutler are at least a year from really competing for jobs. Having the players with the most experience in the program and time together could translate to a more immediate synergy between the players. At a position group that values experience, going with the older players at least gives the Buckeyes a group that knows the system, which should translate to fewer mistakes.

With a first-year quarterback, that will incredibly valuable, even if the group is not special.

The Future

This is the way many fans would prefer. There is nothing better than when a highly touted recruit immediately begins to contribute to the Buckeyes. This is also the complete opposite of the way of the old guard. By going young, that would mean Ohio State’s younger players not only showed they can physically handle the role, but also gave the coaching staff confidence they understand the system well enough to play.

Looking at last year, Donovan Jackson more than lived up to his recruiting ranking to give the Buckeyes a solid battery on the left side. Even with the success, there were still growing pains, which were most evident against Iowa. That being said, even with the growing pains Jackson was by far the best option. He also grew into the role incredibly well as the year went on.

Seeing how the coaching staff has talked about Hinzman and Tshabola, there is a real chance the Buckeyes have an incredibly young offensive line. With the experience at right guard in Jones and left guard in Jackson, having a young center might be more okay than most years.

At the right tackle position, there definitely can be an argument made that the more athletic, higher-upside player should be the option. This was the same question that was asked when Branden Bowen won the job going into the 2019 season. Ohio State had to choose between him and Nicholas Petit-Frere, a redshirt freshman. They went with experience and Ohio State had success, but could the offensive line have been better if Petit-Frere was allowed to grow into the role?

There are also the the transfer additions to think about in this section. Joshua Simmons started at San Diego State as a 2021 recruit, which would give the Buckeyes a game-ready option, albeit at a lower level. They also have Victor Cutler, who I see as a more developmental piece, but could contribute at guard. There’s just a huge learning curve, and especially in Simmons case being a spring transfer, that would be a serious uphill battle.

Going young will lead to some growing pains, which may want to be avoided given the first-year starter at quarterback. The argument could be made though that having those growing pains with players who could bring multiple years to the table would be the better investment. If they can get through the early tests, a young group could be a higher upside option by the end of the year.

The Best Available

This is the most complicated way to field an offensive line, and it definitely does not always work out. Ohio State’s last best available offensive line drew the ire of fans any time the Buckeyes needed a first down. The lauded all-tackle offensive line was an experimental disaster whose incredible pass protection was counteracted by their inability to create leverage in the run game. This year, the best available would be significantly different. It may also include some players not mentioned previously.

Donovan Jackson is the best available lineman. He will be the left guard in all scenarios. The first curveball would be to move Matt Jones back to his recruited position at center. The 69th-ranked recruit nationally gives Ohio State an experienced option snapping the ball. He has been seen as the emergency center for years and is more talented than James while having more experience than Hinzman.

At left tackle, Josh Fryar fills that role next to Jackson. He was trusted into the Bison package as the extra lineman. He showed the athleticism needed in the run game, and in the spring game, he held his own against Ohio State’s first-team pass rush. That test will not be replicated until at least the Notre Dame game, and if not then, not until Penn State — which is in October.

Left guard is an interesting position here. Tshabola trained at guard as a depth piece his freshman season last year. There is also the experience of Enokk Vimahi, who started against Michigan last year and has played in 27 games in his career. Tshabola could get on the field early at this position, but if he is focused on left tackle Vimahi could potentially be the best option. Michalski winning the battle would signify that he is a step above, but I think right tackle is a position you can gamble on youth early.

Simmons was brought in as a transfer. That could signal that Michalski and Tshabola have not done enough. With his game time experience, there is no question about him playing at the D-1 level, it is more a question of how he can transition to the Big Ten level versus the Mountain West.

In this look, you get a ton of experience in the program at four of the positions. This gives an opportunity to bet on the upside at the right tackle position. Having a line of Fryar, Jackson, Jones, Vimahi, and Tshabola might maximize getting the most talent on the field. There are other ways to reorder this group, but this to me would be a potential best available line option.

My Prediction for the offensive line

To close this out, my prediction for the offensive line this season is the best available option. There are talented players coming into the program, but youth is an incredibly risky gamble given what the expectations are for Ohio State every year — not only in physical maturity, but understanding the system, which should take precedence with a first-year quarterback.

As great of a story as Hinzman starting in year two would be, given both Josh Myers and Luke Wypler started in year two as well, having a true sophomore at center on an already inexperienced offensive line seems risky. Moving Matt Jones back to center would give the Buckeyes an older, system-experienced trio in the middle, which given a first-year quarterback is ideal.

At left tackle, there really is no other option at this time than Josh Fryar. He has taken the time cutting his teeth and even earned a specialized role last season. There is no other player on the roster who the coaching staff seems to be considering. On the other side at right tackle, I think Michalski deserves every chance to compete, but Tshabola has a higher upside given how far he has already come. He played well in the spring game, and if you give him an experienced right guard next to him, his athleticism can be valuable. Looking at the other options, maybe Simmons can slide into right tackle, moving one of the two other right tackles to guard.

The left guard position could end up being the loser of the right tackle battle, but more than likely if it’s not Matt Jones, it is going to be Enokk Vimahi. Earlier we talked about his experience. He has been on the field and trusted to start already. The same could not be said for the other players competing for jobs in Hinzman, James, Tshabola, and Michalski. Opening the door to Vimahi really only leaves one position left with no real game experience.

The answer to the burning questions on the offensive line is not simple. There is a reason Frye had to bring in transfers to compete for roles, but even they end up being depth pieces there is still serious questions up front. The implications of the decision can be the difference between a solid season or a national title. For me, playing the players who have played in real game action creates an offensive line that limits risk with a first-year starter at QB. Maximizing the experience and potential at each position is the goal, and that is what Justin Fyre needs to get right.

There are a ton of names that have been thrown around, but my answer to this burning question is a small reshuffle to maximize the best of both worlds between talent and experience. Make this year a bridge year with more experience, and when the quarterback has a year under his belt, let him help the offensive line. The question will burn throughout the season, but with Frye in charge, I’m sure he’ll maximize whoever ends up in the starting lineup.