PASADENA, Calif. – Joshua Alabi’s first significant playing time at Ohio State didn’t go very well.
When starting left tackle Jamarco Jones was forced to leave the game for a series in the second quarter of Ohio State’s 55-24 loss to Iowa last season, Alabi was called upon to play in his place. On his fourth play in the game, Alabi failed to pick up a blitzer on his outside, giving up a free rush to the quarterback and allowing Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann to get a free shot on J.T. Barrett for a strip sack.
That was a learning moment for Alabi, and one that forever changed his mindset.
“My number was called, when Jamarco went down, and I wasn’t prepared,” Alabi said. “Ever since then, I’ve kind of just been telling myself, ‘Never let that happen again.’ Know your plays, know your job, know your assignment, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since then.”
Just under 14 months later, Alabi is set for the biggest playing opportunity of his career to date, as he is expected to start at left tackle in place of Thayer Munford when the Buckeyes play Washington in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday.
This time, Alabi believes he’ll be ready.
“I feel like I’ve prepared really well this entire month,” Alabi said Sunday at Rose Bowl media day. “It’s a blessing. Thank God.”
Alabi was thrust into spot duty at left tackle in two games earlier this season against Minnesota and Maryland, both games that Munford was forced to leave early due to injuries, and drew praise for his performance in those contests, grading out as a champion after playing 85 snaps in place of Munford against the Terrapins.
Having the opportunity to play in those games bolstered Alabi’s confidence, but so has another year of offensive line reps in practice, which he believes make him better on a daily basis.
“We go at it every day,” Alabi said. “This program is built on competition. So every day, you get a wake-up call. Well, I do. I get a wake-up call, because we have a great defensive line, we have a great offensive line, we compete every single day.”
A fourth-year junior, Alabi has had a long road to making his likely first start in the Rose Bowl. He was recruited to Ohio State as a defensive lineman, and played on that side of the ball for his first two years in Columbus. After he played only sparingly in 2016, however, the Buckeyes asked him to move to the offensive line – where they were in serious need of depth – in the spring of 2017.
“It started out with (defensive line coach) Larry Johnson,” Alabi said. “We just had a man-to-man conversation, but I thank him for that, and he just told me like, he thinks I will have more opportunity on the offensive line, and I trust all the coaches here.”
Still, Alabi has had to wait his turn to see significant playing time, as Munford beat him out to replace Jones as the starting left tackle this season. But Alabi says he still kept faith that he would get his opportunity to see the field for the Buckeyes.
“I put all my trust in God, and I know God wouldn’t bring me here for nothing, so I knew that I would get my shot,” Alabi said.
“I feel like I’ve prepared really well this entire month.” – Ohio State left tackle Joshua Alabi on his readiness to start the Rose Bowl
Now, it looks like he will finally get his opportunity, as Munford is expected to miss Tuesday’s game due to injury. Ohio State has not specifically disclosed what’s ailing Munford, but offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said Sunday that the Buckeyes want to give him the opportunity to get fully healthy, even if that means being unable to play in the final game of the season.
“He’s been banged up, dealing with things all year,” Studrawa said of Munford. “It’s just a matter of catching up and catching up and catching up and we’re just trying to get the kid healthy, and right now, he’s not.”
For Alabi, Tuesday’s game isn’t just an opportunity to play in Ohio State’s final game of this season; it could also be his best opportunity to prove he belongs in the starting lineup next season, when the Buckeyes will have to replace Isaiah Prince at right tackle. Fellow fourth-year junior Branden Bowen and five-star freshman Nicholas Petit-Frere are also potential candidates to fill that role in 2019, but a strong showing against Washington could make him the early frontrunner for that position entering the offseason.
This week, though, Alabi just wants to focus on playing his best game possible in the Rose Bowl.
“I’m just taking it a day at a time,” Alabi said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. I’m just focused on the moment right now.”
Prince, the captain of the Buckeyes’ offensive line, is among those who have expressed confidence that Alabi will be able to get the job done.
“I think Josh is a hard-working guy,” Prince said. “If he's going to play in the game, I trust that he's going to do the right things.”