COLUMBUS — When spring finally breaks for the Ohio State football team this year, keep an eye on the offensive line.
There are some jumbo bulbs ready to bloom.
Paris Johnson, Dawand Jones, Matthew Jones, Max Wray, Luke Wypler, Enokk Vimahi — they all rose forth in some form or fashion last season when Covid-19 issues caused the Buckeyes to plumb their depth chart late in the year and on into the College Football Playoff. So call them the perennials, because they are expected to pop back up even sturdier when spring drills commence in March.
But that will present quite the tilling challenge for offensive line coach Greg Studrawa and the staff. Yes, the Buckeyes saw All-American right guard and Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers opt to leave for the NFL draft, but left tackle Thayer Munford, who was expected to go with them, decided to stay. That means instead of three openings in the starting lineup, there are just two with left guard-expected-to-be center Harry Miller and right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere also back.
Having three starters back on the line is nothing to get upset about for any team, of course, but it likely will mean some shuffling just to get the worthy risers on the field, as former Ohio State and NFL lineman Jim Lachey, the long-time game analyst for the Buckeyes radio network, assessed.
“Certainly I was kind of surprised with Thayer Munford coming back, but I understand also he wants to get his college degree, to be the first in his family to do that,” Lachey said. “So for him that’s a great decision, and I’m proud of him for doing it.”
But now there’s somewhat of a stack up on the line conveyor belt.
“You talk about how Matthew Jones filled in a little bit,” Lachey of the journeyman who started in place of the missing Miller at left guard against Clemson and held on to the job against Alabama in the title game. “And how Dawand Jones did against Michigan State, he and Max Wray being the tackles that day and doing a quality job.”
They’re champing at the bit for more playing time.
“There is some depth there, and believe me, every offensive line coach would love to have a lot of depth, which means a lot of competition,” Lachey said. “We also know that in today’s game people want to play. If they don’t get that at one school, they now have the opportunity to go to another school, to opt out and move forward.
“That is an issue you have with today’s players, trying to keep everybody happy, everybody engaged and part of the plan so you can continue to move forward with young players who are good, but kind of waiting in the wings, so to speak, for their opportunity.”
While impatience might tend to crop up, the craziness of football also often provides relief and opportunities.
“Guys get injured, they get nicked up – we saw last season with what was going on [with Covid-19 cases] that your number can get called when you least expect it,” Lachey said. “You’ll be dreaming about that opportunity and sometimes you’ll get it, sometimes you won’t. That’s the waiting game you have to play as a backup.”
And sometimes it is in one’s best interest to sort of force the opportunity. Take Lachey: He was best known for being an All-Pro left tackle and Super Bowl champion (XXVI) with Washington who never gave up a sack to the fearsome Lawrence Taylor. But Lachey played guard at Ohio State where he was an All-American his senior season in 1984 before being a first-round draft pick of San Diego.
He was part of the college philosophy of not pigeon-holing linemen for positions, but putting the best five on the field and rolling with that. He wouldn’t be surprised to see the Buckeyes and Studrawa do something similar this season.
For example, with Paris Johnson, who already showed his flexibility by playing some on the inside in a pinch late last season, even though the five-star prospect started the season as the backup to Petit-Frere. There is a good chance Johnson could be the starting left guard this year.
And the mammoth Dawand Jones, the backup to Munford, is seemingly stuck in that role for another season, but it might be more prudent also to move Jones to, say, right guard if indeed he is among the best five overall.
“No question about it, and the bigger the better,” Lachey said. “For a young guy, hungry to play: ‘Just give me an opportunity.’ I can see a Paris Johnson or Dawand or somebody wanting that.
“And let’s not forget about, say, Luke Wypler. He did a decent job too, as a [freshman] backup last year. He’s listed as a center, he’s going to be competing with Harry Miller. And again, Matthew Jones, he proved himself in the playoffs.”
Now throw in from the 2021 recruiting class freshmen Ben Christman and Zen Michalski, who already are on campus, and, coming in the summer, Donovan Jackson, the five-star from Bellaire, Texas, who was the No. 1 guard prospect nationally according to the 247Sports composite, and the conveyor belt seems chock full. That’s why the competition starting jobs will be so important this spring for those who’ve yet to solidify one.
“We’ll see what happens,” Lachey said. “But all those days when you seemed to have no depth, and now you’ve got this kind of depth on the line, boy, for a football team, it’s a good problem to have.”