The preparation for Nicholas Petit-Frere as a first-time starter a year ago wasn’t all based on one aspect of his game. Ohio State's coaches wouldn’t have thrown him onto the field if that were the case, of course. The process took multiple years for him to even get to the point where he became a full-time starter. They did, however, put an emphasis on one aspect of the right tackle’s game as he entered the 2020 season.
“That was last year's focus, really, going into last season – making him an elite pass protector,” offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said on Wednesday. “He's well on his way. His feet are done. He's doing those things there.”
Petit-Frere responded to that aspect by becoming one of the best at his position in protecting the quarterback. As Studrawa put it, his “pass blocking excelled.”
There isn't an abundance of offensive line statistics that exist, but Petit-Frere did enter the national championship game having allowed pressures on 0.5 percent of drop-backs, per Pro Football Focus. That ranked No. 1 among all offensive tackles on Power Five teams. He neither allowed a sack nor a quarterback pressure in the College Football Playoff semifinal versus Clemson. Anecdotally, how often did anybody hear his name come up during television broadcasts last year? Almost never. The reason was simple: Petit-Frere did his job almost flawlessly when kick-stepping as a pass blocker.
He earned second-team All-Big Ten honors, and quite frankly, he likely would have been an All-American candidate if he had a larger profile and wasn’t in his first-year as a starter. He was that good as a first-time starter in his third year in town.
The next step in Petit-Frere’s development is fairly simple.
“What we've got to do is make him an elite run blocker,” Studrawa said. “Not just a good run blocker. I would say that's where he was. He's got to become elite, and that's what we're focusing on now.”
Petit-Frere consistently did his run-game duties well. It wasn’t a weakness by any means. However, he never developed into a mauler. Teammates talk about Paris Johnson as a violent blocker, but they don’t discuss Petit-Frere in similar terms.
The goal this fall will be to turn the 6-foot-5, 315-pound right tackle a steamroller. Somebody who can bury defensive linemen and open up holes more often on the ground.
Doing so, assuming his pass-blocking acumen doesn’t slip, would make Petit-Frere a complete offensive tackle.
“The thing that we're focusing on with Nick right now is his pad level,” Studrawa said. “He's a tall guy and for him to bend at times, it's a strain. So we've been working on his pad level and making him a more productive run blocker by getting him to bend. So we've worked a bunch of bending things. We've got his squat up, getting his legs more powerful so that he can become a more dominant run blocker.”
Getting better in that area was one of the reasons why Petit-Frere didn’t take the leap to the NFL after Year 3.
As a former five-star recruit who thrived in his first year as a starter, he didn’t totally overlook a potential move to the next level. He just didn’t feel ready to leave Columbus quite yet. Not with unfinished business, both individually and team-wide.
“I gave a little bit of thought to it,” Petit-Frere said. “But I felt comfortable coming back for another year because I felt like I had a lot more to prove, I had a lot more for me to show on the field and I wanted another opportunity to have another great winner, to have another good summer, good spring, and another chance for me to come out and play with these guys and possibly get a chance for us to win a national championship and get back on that field.”
If Petit-Frere proves what he’s hoping to, then the Buckeyes might end up with the best pairing of offensive tackles in college football this year. He somehow remains largely anonymous in the national conversation about Ohio State, yet he was a model of consistency in pass protection as a first-time starter, and the guy across the line from him – fourth-year starting left tackle Thayer Munford – has his eyes on becoming the best offensive tackle in the country.
They’re the ideal tackles to have bookending a line charged with protecting a quarterback who hasn’t ever thrown a pass in college.
Petit-Frere, now about 50 pounds heavier than he was when he got onto campus, didn’t take the quick and easy path to the field. He had to put on oodles of weight, and he lost his first position battle to Branden Bowen as a redshirt freshman.
“Through that growth came a lot of trials and tribulations of me trying to gain my weight and trying to learn the offense, trying to feel comfortable with the team, and then it took me some time,” Petit-Frere said. “It took me time for me to find my groove and find my rhythm and find how comfortable I was. I felt like I got there a little bit during my sophomore year. You never know what you don't know. That's what we say a lot here. When my junior year came up and then I got into a whole new level of feeling comfortable. Like, I thought my sophomore year, oh, this is probably the most comfortable I'll ever be. I feel great. One more year comes around and I feel even more tight with the team. I feel more tight with what I'm doing and everything of that nature.”
Back for his second – and perhaps last – round as a starter this year, the former No. 1 offensive line recruit in the nation feels more comfortable than ever.
Once the season rolls around, he’ll try to show just that in his run blocking.