At some point in the next three weeks as Ohio State’s season-opener on Aug. 31 against Florida Atlantic nears, diminishing time will force Ryan Day and Greg Studrawa to make a decision at right tackle.
Branden Bowen or Nicholas Petit-Frere.
The redshirt senior or the redshirt freshman. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound lineman who can play multiple positions or the 6-foot-5, 295-pound lineman destined for offensive tackle. The one-time right guard who had three surgeries to repair a broken leg suffered in 2017 or the tackle who needed to eat 8,000 calories each day in the offseason to gain enough weight to play. The veteran with six games of starting experience or the second-year player who was the top-ranked offensive lineman in the 2018 recruiting cycle.
There might not be a wrong answer.
Ohio State can either choose to go with Bowen, who played well as a starter two years ago and seems to be back to full health, or it can invest in Petit-Frere, who entered the program as a top-10 overall recruit in his class and is the long-term solution at the position.
Studrawa, when asked on Thursday, didn’t offer any hints about which player has the edge in the competition.
“I can tell you the competition is unbelievable,” Studrawa said. “I think that there is four tackles that would start anywhere in this league and in a lot of places that I have the benefit of having. Four.”
Studrawa was referring to Thayer Munford and Joshua Alabi, in addition to Petit-Frere and Bowen. The Buckeyes don’t have a true battle at left tackle, though. Munford is expected to start at the position with Alabi, a fifth-year senior, serving as his overqualified backup.
At right tackle, though? It’s a full-fledged competition.
On Friday, the first day of fall camp, Petit-Frere took the reps with the first-team offensive line in individual drills. Bowen then took the first-team reps on Tuesday in individual drills. Per Bowen, the two tackles have alternated snaps with the starters in team drills.
“It's just every other series,” Bowen said. “So we're just evenly split and getting kind of that chemistry with the ones so both of us can get a feel for it and not mess up the rhythm too much.”
Bowen, in particular, feels the pressure.
If Petit-Frere doesn’t win the starting position in preseason camp, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll be a starter as a third-year player in 2020. Bowen doesn’t have that option. The fifth-year senior has one more year to play college football, and he understands he might never get a shot in the NFL if he doesn’t start in 2019.
“Coming into camp, the week leading up to it when we had some time off, I was sitting at home thinking, 'This is it. I've got to go now. I don't have a choice. I've got to play or look past football,’” Bowen said. “I had to make that choice to come in and compete for a starting job and just keep pushing for it.”
A broken leg in the sixth game of the 2017 season ended whatever upward trajectory he had after beating Malcolm Pridgeon, Demetrius Knox and Matthew Burrell in preseason camp to start at right guard.
That sent him into a whirlwind of a “brutal” recovery that included three surgeries. He says he could have played near the end of the 2018 season, but he didn’t, meaning he hasn’t taken an in-game snap since Oct. 7, 2017.
Finally healthy, Bowen is back to fighting for a starting spot, and this time it’s at what he calls his “natural” position of offensive tackle.
“It takes time,” Bowen said. “I personally think I'm really ready to go.”
Petit-Frere, too, feels good to go, but he had a completely different battle.
Unlike most people, he struggled to gain weight. After entering college at 265 pounds – and drinking a bunch of water so he could weigh in at 268 pounds on the first day of offseason workouts – Petit-Frere has cracked the 300-pound mark. Buoyed by an 8,000-calorie diet that eventually declined to a measly 6,000 calories per day, he has gained more than 30 pounds since the end of his freshman season.
“We had to get his weight up,” Studrawa said. “That was a bit of a struggle at times to get him up to where he needed to be. He's there now. Every single lift he had in the weight room with Mick (Marotti) is up 20 to 25 pounds. So he's big and strong and physical now. He's had the time to learn the position, and now he's starting to take off.”
In short, the diet – or whatever you want to call six meals and multiple snacks per day – worked. He says he weighs around 302 pounds and maxed out at 307 pounds.
“It's huge,” Petit-Frere said. “We have some big kids around here at Ohio State that we've got to move. That's something that I learned pretty quickly, that I can't really be light and still play the way I did in high school. Like, I actually have to have size and have a bigger body so I can understand how to move people in that way because we have all these requirements that we want for our tackles or any position to make sure that they're playable and good body size to be great college football players and then potential NFL people.”
If all goes right, Petit-Frere will end up in the NFL in a few years, whether he starts this year or not.
As the No. 8 overall prospect and the top-ranked player at his position in 2018, he became the top-rated offensive lineman to sign with Ohio State in the modern recruiting era, a record Paris Johnson is on track to break in December. He has the prototypical frame of an NFL offensive tackle and feet that Bowen described as the fastest he has ever seen on an offensive lineman.
Given his low weight, Petit-Frere only played three early-season games last year and didn’t leave the bench the rest of the season to preserve his redshirt. But now, with his weight at a stable spot for an offensive tackle, Petit-Frere can take the focus off his physical developments and translate that to the field.
“I have to show them that I can do it,” Petit-Frere said. “That's been the thing right now is I've been playing there in spring, I've showed that I can do stuff, but I want to be able to be consistent with it, and I want to show that I can handle it, and I want to show that I can be that guy.”
If Petit-Frere shows Studrawa and Day that they can count on him, he could be an answer at offensive tackle for the next two to four years. And if Bowen looks like the player that once won a position battle two years ago and impressed in six games as a starter, the coaches can rely on him as a veteran on a line full of fresh faces.
Petit-Frere or Bowen. Bowen or Petit-Frere.
It’s an enviable choice.