Every day from now until the start of the season, Land-Grant Holy Land is highlighting Ohio State football players that you should be watching this season. Check out all of our ”Player to Watch” articles to get ready for the season opener against Indiana.
For most of the college football world, I think it’s safe to say that their biggest questions about the Ohio State team coming into the 2023 season are at quarterback and in the defensive secondary. However, maybe it’s my scarlet and gray colored glasses, but I’m not really worried about those things.
Might there be a step back at QB? Yeah, I think there probably will be, but how big of a step is it going to be with a former five-star signal caller in a Ryan Day offense with all of those weapons at his disposal?
The secondary — especially the cornerbacks — was probably what stood between the Buckeyes and a national championship last season (even if it was far from the only issue on that team), but with a second year in Jim Knowles’ system, deeper ranks at both CB and safety, and a healthier (knock on wood) starting lineup, I truly believe that they have the chance to be a positive difference maker this season.
I think for those of us that follow the Buckeyes more closely than those in the college football world at large, there’s a legitimate case to be made that the biggest issue facing this year’s team is on the offensive line. With the key departures of Paris Johnson Jr., Dawand Jones, and Luke Wypler, an already shaky offensive line unit is being forced to fill some seriously gaping holes this fall. While arguments could be made that Jones and Wypler would have been better served to stay in Columbus for another year, that was not the path that either of them took, so Day and o-line coach Justin Frye are having to make do with what they’ve got.
Fortunately, there are a handful of guys who are returning, and should provide at least a little bit of stability. Donovan Jackson is back to start at guard, presumably on the left side. He will be accompanied on the other side by Matt Jones, who was also one of the stalwarts on last year’s line.
While Josh Fryar only played about one-third of what Jones did and a quarter of what Jackson did, he does come into the season with a somewhat substantial number of snaps under his belt, and based on what has been said about him throughout the offseason, it sounds like he is locked into one of the tackle spots... which one? We’ll get back to that.
At center, it seems that Carson Hinzman is leading that battle with Vic Cutler ahead of a still-injured Jakob James.
So, when I attempted to project Ohio State’s depth chart following the team’s first fall practice, I assumed that Fryar — given his experience in the program and at this level — he would be the left tackle and that San Diego State transfer Joshua Simmons would be on the right side. However, at his press conference earlier this week, Day dropped some interesting nuggets.
Not only is Simmons now practicing on the left side, but apparently he prefers to be called Jimmy instead of Josh or Joshua; so left tackle Jimmy Simmons it is. There are still three weeks before the Buckeyes kick off their season against Indiana, but if a player who only got to campus after spring practice is now getting the first team reps at what is considered the most important position on the offensive line — especially with a first-time starter at quarterback — then that’s saying something.
Simmons comes over from the Aztecs where he started all 13 of SDS’s games last season, totaling 799 snaps — which would put him between Jackson and Jones. Pro Football Focus doesn’t have him particularly highly rated, giving him a grade of 65.3 in pass blocking and 47.7 in run blocking. Those grades would be toward the bottom of the new OSU two-deep, but I don’t always put a lot of stock in PFF’s grades, especially when comparing across teams, schemes, and levels of competition.
However, he is a player who has started for a full season at the college level, albeit in the Mountain West. That being said, the Buckeye coaching staff kind of screwed the pooch when it came to the transfer portal. They were not very active at offensive line in the immediate post-regular season window. Admittedly, they were more focused on the College Football Playoff, but there were far more experienced and talented players available that go around than there were in the post-spring window.
While OSU did make overtures to some players in December, it felt half-hearted, at least publicly. So, they ended up bringing in Simmons in May and have been getting him acclimated to the program ever since. Now, just because he transferred in doesn’t mean that he was guaranteed the chance to start. Other players like Tegra Tshabola, Zen Michalski, and George Fitzpatrick seem to have been getting at least a little run with the 1s so far in camp, but to me, the most telling thing is that Simmons has seemingly supplanted Fryar on the blind side.
For better or for worse, the coaching staff knows what Fryar can do. They recruited him (to a certain degree), they have worked with him for years, he has been in the strength and conditioning program for multiple seasons, he is a known commodity. Simmons, on the other hand, is very much none of those things. Not only is he a relatively unknown to Day and Frye, but is also an unknown on the Power 5 level and on a national title contender. So, if the staff feels comfortable enough to run him out as the starter on the left side — and then to tell the media about it — that has to at least be an indication of a change in the pecking order on the offensive line.
Sure, that could be because Fryar just couldn’t hack it on the left side, so they went with the next most experienced option, but I don’t know if that tracks with this staff. While they appear to be more open to play young guys over veterans (look at the fact that 18-year-old Sonny Styles seems to be assured a starting safety spot), they only seem to do that when there is a demonstrable difference between the players. So, if it was close, I would assume that Fryar would get the nod on the left, and Simmons (if he is the next man up) would be on the right.
But, by moving Simmons to LT and having Fryar at RT, that tells me that the San Diego State transfer is significantly outperforming both Fryar and the rest of the tackle contenders. Now, I am not expecting this to mean that Simmons is the next Orlando Pace, or even that he will be an All-Conference caliber tackle, but it does give me a little bit of hope that the Buckeyes stumbled into a guy that can help solidify their o-line.
Having an experienced guy take that type of step forward takes a lot of pressure off of the Buckeyes to get a younger player ready to play perhaps before he’s ready. We all know that getting on the field is harder for offensive linemen than perhaps any other position in football, and if OSU was forced to get Fitzpatrick, Tshabola, or Michalski reps at tackle in games this season, that could have posed a problem with a conference game to open the season and a trip to South Bend just a few weeks later. But, being able to plug and play Simmons in at tackle, should have a ripple effect of solidifying the rest of the line and allowing the unit to develop some cohesion before the season starts.
There are still significant questions about the depth on the line — if someone goes down for a substantial amount of time, the Buckeyes could be in big trouble — but lining up Simmons, Jackson, Hinzman, Jones, and Fryar isn’t the worst thing that could happen to the offense. So, while I still have my doubts about what the group will do, and whether the offense as a whole can maintain the sky-high production of the last five years, if the line can at least work its way into a consistently steady unit, that could pay huge dividends for Ohio State this season.