Greg Studrawa should have one of the best jobs in America right now.
The veteran offensive line coach enters his second season in Columbus, working for one of the best leaders in the sport and ready to contend for a national title with a position room full of blue-chip talent. With four of five starters returning to his unit and the fifth spot up for grabs among a treasure trove of talent, things look wonderful for him on paper.
If that paper happens to be a stat sheet detailing Ohio State's pass protection in 2016, though, a very different story emerges. Despite leading the way for a dominant ground game last fall, the Buckeye line struggled mightily when asked to hold the pocket for veteran quarterback J.T. Barrett, and both of the team's losses were due in large part to the lack of a coherent passing game.
The offensive line wasn't the whole problem, of course, as new quarterbacks coach Ryan Day is tasked with refining Barrett's skills while new coordinator Kevin Wilson looks to create more cohesion for the offense overall. Even amongst the five starters up front last fall, Studrawa had the best center in America in Pat Elflein, an all-conference left tackle in Jamarco Jones, and a three-year starter at right guard in Billy Price.
But the player most fans and analysts remember about the Ohio State O-line was sophomore right tackle Isaiah Price, and not for the reasons either he or Studrawa had hoped. According to CFBFilmRoom.com, of the 53 quarterback hurries surrendered by Buckeye blockers last season, 24 were credited to Prince, who also led the team with 8 QB hits and 7 sacks given up.
Such struggles were never expected of the rising junior from Maryland. At 6'7" Prince carries his 305 lbs like a basketball player, with a trim physique and two of the longest arms in college football. When standing next to Jones, a monster himself at 6'5", Prince's physical gifts are evident immediately, yet his first season as a starter didn't go as planned.
“I was young. As a sophomore, I made a lot of mistakes. My technique wasn’t really that good," Prince said when meeting with reporters earlier this summer. "My first year starting, there was a lot to learn. I just had to put it all behind me to keep getting better.”
According to his coach, that's exactly what he's done since the Buckeyes' season ended prematurely in the College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year's Eve.
"He struggled at times last year, and he's taken that to heart. His offseason's been outstanding and what we've done so far - his attention to detail, the worth ethic, and the little things he's been doing are tremendous," Studrawa said after a recent practice. "What you've got to do is revert back to your training; trust your technique. That was his first time starting and he made some mistakes. He saw those, he's worked on those, he's watched the film - he's studied it, and now, the difference in the kid is like I just said, his attention to detail and the little things [are] not even close to what it was last year."
Despite possessing all the physical tools a lineman could seemingly ever want, Prince's technique ranged from 'OK' to downright ugly, which led directly to many of the pressures he gave up last fall. The primary issue seemed to be his lack of 'bend' as coaches and analysts say, meaning he struggled to bend his knees and lower his center of gravity (aka his backside), bending at the waist and leaning too far into defenders once engaged.
Offensive linemen are taught to keep their weight on the insides of their feet, creating a strong base by staying back on their heels and driving each heel into the ground. This creates an arch-like shape that allows them to transfer force equally between legs and easily absorb contact. The upper body should be upright and relaxed, with the shoulders just slightly forward (but not past the toes) and the head kept back.
Prince, however, rarely secured his footing in time last year, allowing defenders to use his balance against him, engaging with those long arms and using them to push and pull past him as desired.
However, after a spring spent refining his approach with Studrawa and battling a quartet of future NFL pass rushers every day in practice, Prince may have turned a corner.
"Coach Stud is more of a technique guy," Prince said of his coach. "Even if you make a good block, if your technique is wrong, he will still give you a ‘minus.’ It forces you to play with better technique.”
Prince's technique wasn't just limited to footwork and knee bend, though. Despite his massive paws that can reach defenders before they ever get near him, Prince rarely deterred defenders with a meaningful punch at first contact. Without that jarring contact, defenders were able to stay on track toward the backfield, gain superior hand position, and control the battle even if they didn't get to the quarterback.
This lack of punch was surprising, given Prince's performance opening holes as a run blocker, using a similar technique to drive opponents backward on a consistent basis. But many of his struggles were mental. As Jones began to emerge as a star on the opposite side and Elflein continued to act as the unit's foundation in the middle, opponents began scheming ways to confuse and attack the relative weak point on the line - Prince.
The result was a myriad of blitzes, stunts, and twists coming his way, creating hesitation and battering an already weakened sense of confidence. Luckily, when shown similar blitzes in last April's spring game, Prince seemed far more comfortable passing off the man in front of him and identifying his new assignment in time to abate pressure.
This uptick in confidence will go a long way toward stemming all the problems described so far.
“For me, it is just my mindset. My brothers helping me. Not hanging my head after mistakes," he said. "Every time I would make a mistake, I would hang my head because I would be so frustrated. It would just build up play after play. Just knowing that I am not going to play perfect, just keep a good mindset.”
But just as Prince has to work together with his line-mates on the field, the group has worked together to build him up off of it as well.
"To me, I think it is impossible to build [confidence] on your own. You have to have people around you to help you get better. Jamarco, Coach Stud, Billy and even when Pat was still here, they just helped me every day to keep my head up and to know that they trust me out there to be starting with them, to me that was the biggest factor in boosting my confidence.”
With the expectation of yet another playoff run placed upon this team, the pressure will be on Barrett and the passing game to improve from last fall, meaning plenty of eyes will be on the Buckeyes' starting right tackle. But unlike 2016, Prince seems to be ready for the pressure.
“I don’t mind. I learned a lot from last year," he said. "Without last year, I wouldn’t have had this growth. I am thankful for it.”