Experimentation has been the name of Greg Studrawa’s game this year. Few avenues have gone unexplored. Just about all possibilities have been looked into.
For most of the year, he has had four projected starters: Thayer Munford, Nicholas Petit-Frere, Harry Miller and Paris Johnson. The last spot on the offensive line has been the persistent question mark with the intention of somehow putting the five best linemen on the field at once. Matthew Jones was the early favorite. Luke Wypler entered the mix in the spring. Josh Fryar then shot his name into the conversation as preseason camp opened. Most recently, the Dawand Jones hype train has gotten up and running.
Along the way, some players have seen their positions in flux. Miller has been an option at either guard or center. The latest potential starting offensive line alignment has Petit-Frere switching to left tackle and Munford shifting to guard.
Johnson has been the one constant.
He hasn’t practiced with the first-team offense anywhere other than exactly where he is right now: Right guard. They had some internal conversations, Studrawa says, about whether to consider inserting Johnson at his natural position of offensive tackle, but opted not to go in that direction. Why? Because the coaching staff like what they’ve seen from the second-year lineman in his new digs on the interior of the line.
“The fact (is) that Paris has picked that thing up and taken ownership in it, feels comfortable there and loves what he's doing right now,” Studrawa said on Tuesday. “So I didn't want to disrupt that. I thought, you know what, we can keep that right there. He's comfortable and he's just destroying people. So I didn't want to change him and now all of a sudden he's got a different thought process.”
In the middle of last season, the coaches came to Johnson asking if he’d be interested in playing guard for the time being and he obliged. That led to him playing 15 snaps – which he now calls “crucial” for his development – in fill-in duty in the College Football Playoff and propelled him into the offseason as a projected starter as a sophomore despite seeing the field on fewer than two dozen offensive snaps last season.
“Paris Johnson came in with one of the best work ethics and one of the best mindsets I've ever seen someone come to Ohio State with at whatever position. Paris was one of a kind when he came in.”– Nicholas Petit-Frere
This, Johnson doesn’t shy away from, wasn’t his plan.
He wanted to walk in as a true freshman, grab the starting right tackle job, move to left tackle at some point, then bounce to the NFL after three years in college. He spoke to Eleven Warriors about that path before enrolling and recalls those goals, saying he arrived in Columbus with no intention of lining up anywhere other than offensive tackle.
“That's not how it went,” he said.
It’s not. But he’s not mad about the path he’s taking instead.
Johnson’s essentially doing a one-year stint at right guard with an offensive tackle spot awaiting him next year when Munford and potentially Petit-Frere or Jones go pro. He’s bought into this new journey this preseason.
“I feel like that mindset was the next step that I had to take initially in camp,” Johnson said. “During the spring ball, it felt like I was an athletic tackle who came down to guard. And now I feel like, you know what, I'm going to be full in, not just physically in terms of pad level and everything, but fully embracing I'm at guard right now. And I feel like that's really helped me a lot.”
Make no mistake that a year from now Johnson expects to be back to offensive tackle.
“Hopefully next season I'll transition to that next step of playing tackle,” he said. “But right now, I want to dominate where the coaches best see fit for the team.”
That’s really what this is about. It’s Johnson wanting to get onto the field as quickly as possible, wanting to showcase his versatility and wanting to help Ohio State by ensuring he’s on the field even if it’s not at the position at which he expected to be starting by year two of his college career. Just like the coaches have sold Munford on increasing his NFL draft stock by playing on the interior, they’ve talked to Johnson similarly, and their messages have made a comparable impact on him.
What makes Johnson’s move particularly impressive is the complete lack of conversation surrounding his spot.
He played 22 offensive snaps last season. He’s a true sophomore. Yet nobody has wondered whether he’d be one of the five starters up front in 2021.
Josh Fryar had to chuckle after the fourth “really” he put in front of the word “good” when describing Johnson. Petit-Frere had to fend off Johnson in his quest to start at right tackle last offseason, and given his first-hand experience, he has no indications that Johnson will do anything other than excel this season, even if he’s playing guard instead of tackle.
“He's probably one of the hardest workers on our offensive line. That's how I'm going to explain it,” Petit-Frere said. “Paris Johnson came in with one of the best work ethics and one of the best mindsets I've ever seen someone come to Ohio State with at whatever position. Paris was one of a kind when he came in. He had such a good mindset. He was so focused, so determined.
“From when he first came in to now, it's just culminating into who he is as a player. And I'm very glad coach Stud sees is, as well as I hope the whole nation sees how good of a player Paris Johnson can be and how dedicated he is to his craft.”
Johnson had effectively locked up the right guard opening by the time spring camp concluded. He left no doubt.
Now, he’s gearing up for what might be the only season of guard he ever plays.
“My goal in camp is just to go out there and just dominate. And I feel like the coaches know that I play with an edge and I like to finish and I like to try to be the most aggressive guy on the field. I think that the next step for me this season, which I've had conversations about with coach Stud, is now it's about honing in on the technique and the right steps. So, finishing stuff, that's kind of expected with me because that's the standard I've set for myself when I first came in. But now it's about the steps, my hand placement. Things like that.
“I feel like that, right now, is really what's exciting (Studrawa). By taking it on the field is seeing that growth of me as a technician and not just as an aggressor.”