Four years, two positions, one start.
Just a couple days before Ohio State headed to Pasadena, California, to take on Washington in the Rose Bowl, which would be Urban Meyer's final game as a head coach, Joshua Alabi was informed he would be making the first start of his career. Thayer Munford, injured, wouldn't be able to play, so Alabi began preparing to play left tackle.
His first career start came nearly a half-decade in the making. He committed to Ohio State along with Mike Weber, Alabi's high-school teammate at Cass Technical in Detroit, about 4 1/2 years ago as the No. 30 strong-side defensive end in the class of 2014. After playing sparingly in his first two seasons as a defensive lineman, Alabi had a conversation with Larry Johnson who told him it would be best for his future to switch sides of the ball and become an offensive lineman.
"Coach J just told me that we have had a lot of people that played defensive line that went over to offensive line and that I looked like I would have an opportunity over there," Alabi said in April 2017. "When I heard that, I knew coach Johnson just wanted the best for me, and it just went from there."
Alabi got some playing time last year and was forced into action earlier this season versus Minnesota and Maryland, but had never started a game.
That changed on New Year's Day, when he lined up beside Malcolm Pridgeon at left tackle. Washington's defensive line didn't have the level of talent of the team's outstanding secondary, but Alabi's reps could pay off in the offseason when he's competing for a starting spot.
Alabi moved his feet well and had good instincts in pass protection. He kept his head on a swivel during the Rose Bowl when dropping back into pass protection.
On the play below, he initially kicked back with the intention of blocking the outside linebacker. But when he dropped back into coverage, Alabi quickly turned his attention back to the defensive lineman who Pridgeon had picked up. Alabi deliverd a blow to him, stunning him and allowing Pridgeon slides off and help Michael Jordan with a defensive line stunt just in time.
Alabi mirrored the defensive lineman well on the following play, stifling his edge rush, then maintaining balance and kicking back inside when the lineman tries to change directions. Alabi also does a nice job keeping his hands on his opponent, not allowing him to rip under him when he turns for a second effort to try to find a path inside Alabi.
This wasn't Alabi's best block of the game, but was solid and indicative of his style of play. At 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, Alabi is a big man. Sometimes, though, he played with more finesse than power. On this play, and on most in the Rose Bowl, it worked.
Alabi didn't explode through the defensive end, who gets a yard downfield. But Alabi did a great job to turn his back to the hole that opened just wide enough for Weber to run through and pick up the first down. Optimally, Alabi might have moved his man off the ball more than he does on this play, but, importantly, he forced him out of the play to open up a running lane.
Zion Tupuola-Fetui, a freshman linebacker, tries to beat Alabi with a pure speed rush. Alabi quickly realized what his opponent was trying to do and sped up his kick step, locking up Tupuola-Fetui.
At the end of the play though, his head turned back to Dwayne Haskins, which hurt him earlier in the game.
Alabi's main drawback in the Rose Bowl was his lack of explosion as a run blocker. Unlike Isaiah Prince, the tackle on the other side of the line, and Wyatt Davis, who started his first game in the Big Ten championship, Alabi is more of a technical run blocker. Davis and Prince are road graders. Alabi often maneuvers defenders with angles rather than drive them off the ball.
On this play, Alabi and Pridgeon were tasked with double teaming defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike. However, Onwuzurike completely split their double team. It didn't cost Ohio State since Haskins kept the ball. But had he handed it off to J.K. Dobbins, the mistakes by Alabi and Pridgeon would have cost the Buckeyes the first down.
Charged with double-teaming Greg Gaines with Pridgeon, Alabi and the right guard get pushed into the backfield, which slows down Weber and forces him outside.
Weber does a good job to make up the lost yards. But had Alabi and Pridgeon gotten more explosion, they would have pushed Gaines back, and one of them would have come off the block and sealed off Burr-Kirven (No. 25), which could have led to a substantial gain.
Alabi does a good job pushing outside linebacker Ryan Bowman behind Haskins, who steps up in the pocket to avoid the speed rush.
However, after he disengages with Bowman, he turns his head to look back at the quarterback. Maybe Alabi wouldn't have been able to slow down Bowman who was a few feet away, but had he stuck with the edge rusher, he might have stopped Bowman from picking up the sack on a second effort.
No one's first start is perfect. Wyatt Davis will likely have an impressive career at Ohio State, but even his first career start in the Big Ten championship had its fair share of bugaboos.
Alabi had a solid first career start, which is important heading into next season. Greg Studrawa extolled the benefits of getting major playing time in a high-profile game after Davis' first career start.
“I can't tell you,” Studrawa said after the Big Ten championship. “I couldn't even come close to telling you how much that would advance (Davis) for spring ball. It will give him confidence. It will give him an attitude going into the winter that 'I'm the guy now. I can start going.' So, I can't tell you what that will do for him.”
Though Alabi filled in at left tackle for the Rose Bowl, he won't be battling for playing time at that position leading up to next season. Munford has the spot locked down.
Instead, he'll be one of the linemen fighting for the starting right tackle spot. His main competition is expected to be Nicholas Petit-Frere, a highly touted sophomore who was the top offensive tackle in his class, and Branden Bowen, who missed most of this year after three surgeries to repair a broken leg. Bowen will likely be an option to play guard, which could make the competition a two-man battle between Alabi and Petit-Frere.
Though Petit-Frere has a high ceiling, Alabi could be the safer option next season. Plus, his experience against Washington in the Rose Bowl could give him an early leg up.
“I’m just taking it a day at a time,” Alabi said on Dec. 30 before the Rose Bowl. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. I’m just focused on the moment right now.”