By the end of last season, redshirt junior center Josh Myers had seen enough. He’d watched redshirt sophomore tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere develop his body, seen him put on weight and learn the requisite offensive line technique.
Once in the final quarter of the 2019 season, Myers finally felt fully confident in Petit-Frere’s ability to play at an Ohio State level. Entering the offseason, he assumed the third-year lineman would replace Branden Bowen at right tackle and was proven correct. Petit-Frere beat out Paris Johnson and Dawand Jones to win the job, which Ryan Day made official eight days ago.
In Saturday’s opener with Nebraska, Petit-Frere made his second career start – his first at right tackle – and, by all accounts, shined. Petit-Frere didn’t allow any sacks and did his job consistently well in the run game, so the coaches graded him as a “champion.” He thought he had a “good start,” but Myers might view that as underselling what he managed to do to open his first full year as a starter.
“Man, did he play well. Whew,” said Myers, exhaling as his eyes widened. “He played really well.”
Petit-Frere, always one to point out things he can improve, has reason to smile after his first performance. He played about as well as anybody within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center could have hoped in Week 1.
If Myers has a similar reaction after the upcoming showdown with Penn State and the coaches grade their right tackle as a champion once again, Petit-Frere will be in business.
But without any exaggeration, he’s staring down the biggest test of his football-playing life. Nothing Petit-Frere will have ever done before this weekend compares to the challenge of facing star defensive ends Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh, along with the rest of Penn State’s front seven. The Nittany Lions will send their edge rushers at Justin Fields, blitz more than most teams and move their linemen around with stunts in order to try to confuse the right tackle and his fellow linemen.
Against Nebraska, Petit-Frere showed signs of getting nearer to the player everybody expected when he signed with Ohio State in 2018 as the nation’s top offensive line recruit. On Saturday, the world will learn exactly where Petit-Frere is in his development.
“Over film, we know they're a very talented team with great defensive ends, a great D-line overall,” Petit-Frere said on Wednesday. “They're very active with their blitzes, stunts, stuff like that. We've just been watching film from the Indiana game and the games we've had prior to. So we've just been preparing for anything, whether they stunt or they don't stunt, what type of blitzes they may run, things like that. So we've just been preparing, watching a lot of film together as a unit and by ourselves, trying to find ways for us to figure out game plan and strategies for them.”
Regardless of all of Penn State's moving parts, Petit-Frere can feel confident knowing this weekend he’ll see plenty of Oweh and Toney, a pair of the Big Ten’s top pass rushers.
“I'm never, ever going to feel like I'm at where I'm supposed to be at. I always feel like I can improve. But I do feel I'm very confident at the moment about where I am and how I've been doing.”– Nicholas Petit-Frere
Oweh, at 6-foot-5, 252-pound former Ohio State recruiting target, has shot up NFL draft boards due to his raw athleticism. The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, who ranked him as the fourth-freakiest athlete in college football, reported that he clocks a 4.33 40-yard dash and has 4.9 percent body fat.
Petit-Frere’s agility will come into play when he matches up with Oweh. Last year, Bowen said Petit-Frere has the fastest feet of any offensive lineman he had ever seen.
“Another great edge rusher with that Penn State defense,” said Petit-Frere to describe Oweh. “Very talented, as well. Athletic. Strong. It's just another great challenge for us to get better and for us to find ways for us to compete.”
Oweh, a redshirt sophomore, hasn’t yet had his on-field production match his athleticism. He recorded five sacks in 2019. Yet given his presence as a possible first-round selection in most mock drafts, nobody doubts what he could do once it clicks. And Pro Football Focus graded him as the Big Ten's best defender this past weekend.
Toney, a fifth-year senior, will take on Petit-Frere and Munford looking to build upon a two-sack performance in his team’s season-opening loss to Nebraska. The 6-foot-3, 252-pounder earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year with 6.5 sacks, and he returns looking for a new career-high.
“(Toney is) a very athletic defensive end, very talented,” Petit-Frere said. “I know Penn State had a lot of great rushes last week against Indiana, and last year they were a very talented team. He’s going to be a great competitor for me to go up against and for me and Thayer (Munford) to go up against or whoever's playing. So we're just ready for us to go after him and do our best.”
Petit-Frere has waited quite a while for these moments.
He walked in the door of Ohio State’s football facility for the first time weighing 271 pounds, only after drinking a ton of water to prevent Mickey Marotti from knowing he was actually 268 pounds. As a true freshman, he played late in three of the first four games before redshirting to focus on gaining weight. Petit-Frere had a chance to start in 2019, but Bowen beat him out and left him on the bench once again to perfect his technique, gain the requisite weight and “put it all together,” as he said.
Petit-Frere’s development continued into this past offseason, even when COVID-19 forced him back home to Florida. There, he reached his goal of adding 10 pounds – while, of course, dealing with a gutter on his mother's home that broke while doing pull-ups – and focused on “doing the little things right,” which positioned him to start on Saturday.
At points in the journey, Petit-Frere readily admits he didn’t know whether or not he had fallen off-track of where he wanted to go. Had something gone wrong? Living in the moment, he experienced moments of doubt.
Now, finally a starter with a chance to prove himself at Penn State looming, he feels like he's back on the path he wants to go down.
“I feel like I'm getting there,” Petit-Frere said. “There's always other stuff I can work on. I can get more film analysis, get better with my techniques, anything I can do to get better. So I'm never, ever going to feel like I'm at where I'm supposed to be at. I always feel like I can improve. But I do feel I'm very confident at the moment about where I am and how I've been doing. I've been getting good admirations from the coaches and things like that, so it just feels like I'm more along with the program as a whole.”