After a year-and-a-half on the sidelines, Branden Bowen is finally getting his opportunity to become an integral part of Ohio State’s offensive line once again.
Bowen hasn’t played since the sixth game of the 2017 season against Maryland, when he fractured both his tibia and fibula in his left leg. The injury required three surgeries and more than a year to fully heal, preventing Bowen from playing a single snap last season.
Now that he finally feels like he’s back to being fully healthy this spring, Bowen is back on the field and competing for a starting spot, taking reps this spring at both right tackle and left tackle with the first-team offensive line.
“It’s been amazing,” Bowen said of returning to the field. “There’s no feeling like it. I think I said it in 2017, there’s no feeling like being able to play with your brothers out there. It’s a different set of brothers – Josh Myers, Nick (Petit-Frere), Gavin Cupp, Wyatt Davis – but I love them nonetheless. It’s amazing.”
While Bowen started at right guard for the Buckeyes in 2017, he’s practicing primarily at tackle this spring. He could still play guard for Ohio State this season if needed, but his preference is to play tackle – the position he began his career at when he arrived at Ohio State in 2015.
Thayer Munford, who has been sidelined this spring while recovering from back surgery, will be the Buckeyes’ starting left tackle this fall as long as he is healthy. That said, Bowen appears to be the early frontrunner at right tackle, with fellow fifth-year senior Joshua Alabi practicing primarily at left tackle, though redshirt freshman Nicholas Petit-Frere is also in the mix at that spot.
Bowen is as motivated as he’s ever been to secure a spot in the starting lineup and finish his career strong.
“It’s a ridiculous amount of motivation,” Bowen said.
While Alabi has been taking most of the first-team reps this spring at left tackle, with Bowen lining up across from him on the right side, Alabi missed some practices due to a battle with the flu – forcing Bowen to put his versatility to work once again and fill in at left tackle with Munford also out. That’s been an additional challenge for Bowen to balance this spring, as he’s had to work on his footwork on both sides of the line.
With everything he’s been through over the past couple years, though, Bowen is just glad to be back on the field again, and he said it doesn’t matter to him which side of the field he plays on.
“Tackle’s a little more responsibility,” Bowen said. “You got to see blitzes, you got to see the field, you got to see safeties, coverage, stuff like that. But I love it. It’s fun.”
Bowen doesn’t just want to be a starter on Ohio State’s offensive line this season; he also wants to be a leader. As one of three fifth-year seniors in the offensive line room, along with Alabi and former walk-on Kevin Woidke, Bowen believes it is now his responsibility to set the example for Ohio State’s younger offensive linemen.
“It’s huge. The future of Ohio State, I guess, depends on how I can help them,” Bowen said. “So every day, just little things like picking their mood up or technique stuff. It can range from a variety of things – hanging out with them on the weekends and stuff like that. Keeping them out of trouble.”
Bowen has talked openly about both the physical and mental hurdles he had to overcome in his recovery from injury, but he’s feeling as good as he ever has now, giving him confidence that he can finish his Ohio State career with a great season.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life,” Bowen said. “I’m the strongest I’ve ever been, fastest I’ve ever been and I feel good.”
Offensive line coach Greg Studrawa believes Bowen is still working his way back to playing at the same level he did before his injury, but he’s pleased with what he’s seen from Bowen so far this spring.
“I think we’re as close now as we’ve been (since the injury),” Studrawa said. “I’ve seen him move, strike, drive his legs like the old Bowen before that injury. So I think he’s getting closer. I think now it’s just a matter of getting the conditioning back in his leg, over and over and over and over, the wear and tear.”
Head coach Ryan Day gave a similar assessment of Bowen’s performance this spring, believing that his best is still yet to come.
“I think he’s been solid this spring,” Day said. “I don’t think he’d tell you that he’s playing his greatest football. But he’s still getting his feet underneath him, because he has a lot of potential.”
Bowen agrees with Day’s assessment, saying that he doesn’t think he’s quite where he needs to be yet, but he believes being back on the practice field and running with the first-team offense will get him there.
“I’m lucky to have players like Chase Young, Jonathon Cooper, Tyreke (Smith), all those guys just to go against every day, ‘cause you’re getting the best in the country, every day,” Bowen said. “And they’ve been helping me a lot.”
“I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life. I’m the strongest I’ve ever been, fastest I’ve ever been and I feel good.”– Branden Bowen
Bowen also has a new perspective on life, not only because of the injury he had to overcome but also because of the arrival of his son, Booker, who was born on March 21.
With a new kind of love that he described as indescribable, Bowen isn’t just motivated to succeed this season for himself, but also to set himself up for the opportunity to play in the NFL and provide for his son along with his fiancée, Kate.
“It makes everything more important,” Bowen said. “The coaches always preach, do the little things, do the little things. But now, you really, really see that, because every little thing matters, because this is the future of your child. We play football for the love of the game and to get to the next level and have those opportunities. So it just makes it that much more important.
“Priorities here: Win a national championship, become the best player I can be, help this team as much as I can. But yeah, that definitely gives you a bigger perspective.”