When Paris Johnson Jr. committed to Ohio State as a high school recruit, he expected to have the opportunity to start at offensive tackle as a sophomore.
At the time, it appeared as though a starting job would be open this offseason, as left tackle Thayer Munford was set to exhaust his collegiate eligibility in 2020. But because Munford decided to use the extra year of eligibility provided to all players by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere also opted to stay at Ohio State for his senior season, both offensive tackle spots remain filled for 2021.
Even so, Johnson appears to be well on his way to earning a starting job this year.
With Wyatt Davis now in the NFL, Johnson is penciled in as his replacement at right guard. He was taking the first-team reps at that position during practice on Monday, and all indications are he’s the frontrunner to start at that spot this year.
Johnson has taken the position change in stride, knowing it gives him the best opportunity to be a starter this season.
“When I first was recruited here, I took a look at the depth chart and I sort of made some assumptions. And I saw that by my sophomore year, there would be a spot at tackle. But with everything that’s happened, I’m more than happy to play guard,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Because Coach (Ryan) Day said he wanted to have the best five people play, and he saw a fit with me being at guard, and I’m more than happy to play at that position.”
Johnson still expects to be a starting tackle for the Buckeyes next season, when Munford will be in the NFL and Petit-Frere could be, too. Given that he was the No. 1 offensive tackle in the recruiting class of 2020 and has aspirations of being a top NFL draft pick, he’ll certainly be pushing for that opportunity when he can get it. Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said Wednesday he “absolutely did” consider the possibility of moving either Munford or Petit-Frere inside to guard instead of Johnson, but ultimately decided the two returning starters should stay at the positions where they’re already proven commodities.
Playing guard this season is how Johnson can help Ohio State the most in 2021, and he believes it can help him when his time to pursue an NFL career comes, too.
“The biggest opportunity that I have starting at guard is that I get to show versatility, and I feel like that adds a lot of value,” Johnson said. “And I feel like the biggest thing now, I’m not draft-eligible after this season, so my biggest thing this season and next season is what does the team need? So we can get to where we want to be at. Because when you play professional football, unless you’re a veteran guy, you can’t just be ‘I’m just a left tackle. I’m just a right tackle.’ Somebody goes down, you’re gonna need to be able to play tackle and guard, left and right in the league, with the amount of people that travel. So I feel like if anything, this is just preparation to being able to just move around and be flexible, and I feel like the league would appreciate that when it’s time.”
Moving a top tackle prospect like Johnson to guard could be viewed as a risky proposition, as there’s no guarantee he’ll be as good inside as he can be outside. In the Buckeyes’ first nine practices this spring, though, he’s impressed his coaches and teammates with how well he’s taken to his new position.
“I think he’s making a seamless transition from the tackle spot to the guard spot,” said fellow second-year offensive lineman Luke Wypler. “He’s been having a great spring so far, kind of learning a new position, the nuances of it, and I think he’s gonna have a great rest of the spring and then into fall camp and to the season.
“He’s just a great athlete. He understands football. He’s just a violent player, honestly. He comes in every play trying to bring violence to the field, and I think when you have that mindset, you can play any position. It doesn’t really matter if it’s linebacker, guard or safety.”
Studrawa credits Johnson’s mental toughness and commitment to improving as two reasons why Johnson has fared well thus far in his move to guard.
“He is a kid that’s very, very mentally tough … and without that, first, you wouldn’t be able to make that transition,” Studrawa said. “Because there’s a little bit of difference sometimes between tackles and guards as far as athleticism and finesse and toughness and grit. And Paris is such a student of the game. He studies the game. He’s in my office, sometimes I gotta kick him out because I’m sick and tired of seeing him. Because he’s in there every day wanting to know this and wanting to know that, how do I get an edge on this? So his attention to detail and his toughness and ‘I want to play, coach’ is why he’s made the transition so smooth so far.”
Petit-Frere, who Johnson is now next to on the offensive line, has also liked what he’s seen from the second-year Buckeye.
“His toughness and aggressiveness have just been amazing to watch,” Petit-Frere said. “He’s always had that aggression coming out of high school, his first year here and it’s just shown on the field now. Everyone talks about it.”
“He’s in my office, sometimes I gotta kick him out because I’m sick and tired of seeing him. Because he’s in there every day wanting to know this and wanting to know that, how do I get an edge on this?”– Greg Studrawa on Paris Johnson's commitment to improving
Johnson did get the chance to play a few snaps at guard in last year’s College Football Playoff – nine against Clemson and six against Alabama – which gave him a taste of the position he's now expected to play on a full-time basis this year. And being called upon to play in the biggest games of the season gives Johnson reason to be confident this spring.
“Those reps were really valuable,” Johnson said. “It made me look forward to if that’s where the team needs me to be at this season, I know I’m able to do it.”
Ohio State isn’t likely to name its new starting interior offensive linemen until some point in August. As things stack up now, however, it would be a big surprise if Johnson isn’t the starting right guard when the Buckeyes open their season on Sept. 2.