Among Ohio State’s new starters on the offensive side of the ball, no one is set to play a more significant role than Branden Bowen.
While the Buckeyes also have new starters at wide receiver, it remains unclear exactly who those starters will be – thanks to the "OR" designations on Ohio State’s depth chart – and it’s likely the top six receivers will all rotate in and out of the lineup, at least at the beginning of the year.
Bowen, on the other hand, is in line to play just about all of Ohio State’s meaningful offensive snaps this season – barring injury or poor play – as he has been named the Buckeyes’ outright starter at right guard.
Bowen might not have been the first name that came to mind – or even in the top three – to potentially start at right guard entering fall camp. Demetrius Knox, who filled in at guard during part of last season’s Fiesta Bowl, looked like a logical favorite to seize the job. Junior college transfer Malcolm Pridgeon and redshirt sophomore Matthew Burrell, both highly touted four-star recruits, were also contenders to win the job. Yet it was Bowen, a three-star recruit from Draper, Utah, who played and practiced primarily at tackle until this past month, who ended up pulling away from the competition.
"It really wasn't that close to be honest with you," Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of the competition. "Burrell was very close to him. But Bowen did a very nice job."
Meyer reiterated in each of his final two press conferences before Thursday’s season opener at Indiana that Bowen, a redshirt sophomore who saw playing time as a backup in 2016, is "one of the most improved players" on the entire team. That enabled him to earn his place in the starting lineup.
"Something clicked with him," Meyer said Monday.
Meyer isn’t the only one who recognized Bowen’s improvement over the course of the offseason. His teammates did, too.
"He’s definitely gotten better," said defensive tackle Tracy Sprinkle, who has experience lining up against Bowen in practice. "A lot better. He earned that starting spot. It wasn’t given to him. He earned it."
Defensive end Jalyn Holmes said he believes Bowen "has got his confidence to where he knows what he’s doing and why he’s doing it."
"He’s really patient in his pass sets. He’s real aggressive against the run. He’s getting better every day," Holmes said. "And he deserves everything he’s getting. He’s carrying himself as a professional. And that’s why he’s the starting guard."
Billy Price, the captain of Ohio State’s offensive line, said he has been close with Bowen since last year’s fall camp, when they were paired together as roommates at the team hotel. Price, who was the Buckeyes’ right guard last year before moving to center this year, said he has seen Bowen "come a long way."
"These young players, there’s so much going on. And they really have to be able to slow the game down and kind of slow down their mindset and the way they approach a play," Price said. "He’s in a good place right now. He’s found his way at Ohio State. So he got an opportunity to play right guard during camp, and went out and executed, played well and got the spot."
“He’s carrying himself as a professional. And that’s why he’s the starting guard.”– Jalyn Holmes
While Bowen wasn’t as highly recruited as some of Ohio State’s other offensive linemen, it isn’t hard to see he has potential. After all, he measures in at 6-foot-7 and 312 pounds, fitting him in nicely on an offensive line that is bigger than some NFL teams’ offensive lines.
"You look at Bowen, you just think that’s a huge guy. You see the potential there. You see what he can be," said defensive end Tyquan Lewis. "And then he just looks like he’s motivated more. He’s ready to go play now."
Bowen’s days of playing offensive tackle might not be over. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said Tuesday during The Urban Meyer Show on 97.1 The Fan that Bowen would still be first in line to step in at left or right tackle if either Jamarco Jones or Isaiah Prince was to suffer an injury.
Should Bowen have to move to tackle at any point this year, it’s likely either Burrell or Pridgeon would be next in line at right guard. True freshman Wyatt Davis, who is listed as a co-backup with Pridgeon at right guard, could also be a candidate to play if needed. Knox is not listed on Ohio State’s Week 1 depth chart.
For now, though, Bowen is firmly established as Ohio State’s starting right guard. The Buckeyes are confident he will do that job well.
"He’s become the player that we need to him to be as far as the guard position that was vacant," Lewis said. "When he stepped in, he’s done a tremendous job. I think he’s gotten a lot better. His technique is down. He’s looking good, and better and better every day."
Bowen will have his first chance to prove it on Thursday, when the Buckeyes play the Hoosiers at Memorial Stadium in Bloomington, Ind. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:09 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN with alternative "Megacast" presentations on ESPNU, ESPNews and ESPN3.