It’s as if Ohio State players and coaches go into every spring camp in a battle to say the phrase “best five” most often when talking about the offensive line in interview settings. This past week, the faux competition heated up.
Nicholas Petit-Frere said “at the end of the day we just want to play the best five linemen we’ve got.” Paris Johnson chimed in to say, “Coach (Ryan) Day said he wanted to have the best five people play.” Greg Studrawa made sure to mention that “we’re working on the best five.”
The point is pretty straightforward: Ohio State, this year like any other year, wants to make sure it puts the team’s five best offensive linemen on the field at once. Simple enough.
Sometimes, actually getting the five best together on a starting offensive line is a bit tougher than it seemingly should be. Some teams have solid interior linemen but struggle to create depth at tackle. Maybe a team misses on a center in a recruiting cycle and suddenly finds itself scrambling to have somebody learn the position in the middle of the line. The Buckeyes know that feeling all too well; not long ago, Michael Jordan played out of his natural position to line up at center out of necessity.
Ohio State won’t have any of those types of problems in 2021. This upcoming season, the positional flexibility both on the offensive and defensive lines will be a notable plus for this team.
For years, Day has preached positional versatility across the entire roster, and this fall might be the best it has been up front since he has been the head coach.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Buckeyes have two true offensive tackles bookending the line in Petit-Frere and Thayer Munford. Behind them on the depth chart, both Johnson and Dawand Jones are quality backup tackles, but their ability to shift inside and play guard has given Studrawa the choice of potentially starting them inside. They’re not the only swing linemen who can play tackle or guard either, with Enokk Vimahi also shifting between the two positions.
In the middle of the line, Ohio State has given itself a lot to consider. Harry Miller, Matthew Jones and Luke Wypler were all top-two centers in their respective recruiting classes. Miller started at center once in 2020, and with him being out for the spring, both Jones and Wypler have taken first-team reps at the position in March and April. All three have the ability to play guard as well. Jakob James has spent time at both spots, too.
With the goal being to put the best five together, the flexibility of this line makes that feasible.
“We move guys around all the time,” Day said on Monday. “Paris has been doing a great job at guard, but at any point we can move him over as well. Dawand's played some guard. Enokk Vimahi has moved around some. So we'll just kind of keep moving and shaking. What we do one day will change the next because the versatility is a huge value for us. We kind of interchange those guys. Thayer's done some different things over his career. Matt Jones has moved around. It's just something that Stud will kind of mix and match as spring goes on to get those guys some reps because you just never know where those guys could be.
“We do like the fact that Paris is making great progress at guard, so I think today he just wanted to keep him there to keep growing. He's been doing well there, so didn't want to make a move. But who knows? That could change tomorrow.”
The defensive side of the ball has seen Larry Johnson put a premium on similar versatility.
Throughout his tenure, guys have regularly bounced between spots on the line. In the not-too-distant past, Tyquan Lewis, Nick Bosa and Jalyn Holmes all spent some time at defensive tackle while primarily playing on the edge. Dre’Mont Jones moved inside to tackle after starting out at end. Jashon Cornell bounced around throughout his career.
Johnson might not have as much intra-unit movement this year. But he does have some possibilities to consider, especially at defensive tackle.
Taron Vincent has been talked about as a prototypical 3-technique, but even he has repped at nose tackle at times this spring, per Haskell Garrett. Both Jerron Cage and Antwuan Jackson have played both nose tackle and 3-technique throughout their careers.
“Everybody knows how to play both positions, 3-tech and nose guard,” Garrett said. “For the most part, everybody's fighting for a job and everybody's trying to get better. Taron (Vincent is) doing really well. Jerron Cage is doing really well, and so is Antwuan Jackson. You see some flashes from Ty Hamilton doing really well. Just everybody overall fighting for jobs is getting better. It's not really, who's going to be the starter? It's just, who can contribute for the team?”
Even defensive ends Zack Harrison, Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday have worked inside on the Rushmen package over the years. J.T. Tuimoloau, if he chooses Ohio State over Alabama and others, can play either defensive tackle or defensive end, and others already on the team – Cormontae Hamilton, Darrion Henry-Young and Jacolbe Cowan – could end up at either spot. Noah Potter has already shifted inside to play tackle.
“I'm really excited about this group. I really am,” Johnson said. “We lost Tommy (Togiai), which was a big loss, but we had guys waiting in the wing.”
Johnson, just like Studrawa, has options. Maybe he’ll soon start talking about putting the “best four” on the field the way his offensive counterparts do.