Isaiah Prince’s path to becoming a starting offensive tackle for a Super Bowl team has come with plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Even though he was a three-year starting right tackle at Ohio State who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior, his play was often a target of criticism during his Buckeye career as he was inconsistent as a pass blocker and had issues with penalties.
Prince fell to the sixth round of the 2019 NFL draft and didn’t even last one full season with the team who drafted him, the Miami Dolphins, who waived him after he played in just four games with the team.
He was claimed off of waivers by the Cincinnati Bengals shortly after he was released by the Dolphins, but did not play in any games for the Bengals as a rookie and opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Going into the 2021 offseason, Prince was far from a lock to make the Bengals’ roster.
But he did, and when Riley Reiff went down with a season-ending ankle injury in December, Prince took Reiff’s place in the lineup as the Bengals’ starting right tackle. He’s held that role for all of the Bengals’ last six games – their final three regular-season games and all three of their playoff wins – as they’ve made a run to the Super Bowl for the first time in 33 years.
That’s not an outcome many people would have seen coming for Prince a year ago, or two years ago, or three years ago. Even Prince acknowledges that he wondered whether his football career might be over as he watched from home in 2020. But he always thought he had the ability to get to where he is now.
“I don’t think I ever doubted myself,” Prince said last week. “I know the type of player that I am, I know that I belong and I think that’s the biggest thing is the confidence, believing in yourself and I don’t think I’ve never stopped believing in myself.”
While Prince didn’t participate in the 2020 NFL season, he continued to work at his craft by training with former Ohio State offensive lineman LeCharles Bentley. He also went back to school, using his time away from the field to complete his undergraduate degree at Ohio State, and even spent some time boxing. But he remained focused on his ultimate goal of NFL success.
“That was a very challenging time in my life, but I still had to wake up every day and stay focused on the things that really needed my attention, and I think that definitely plays a key part in right now with everything that’s going on,” Prince said. “It’s just staying focused and controlling what you can control.”
Bengals offensive line coach Frank Pollack said the work Prince put in while he was away from the team played a big part in helping him get to where he is now.
“He went out to Arizona and really trained really hard,” Pollack said Tuesday. “He kind of changed his body (composition) a little bit and put on some mass in that regard.”
Even as he’s helped the Bengals win the AFC championship and earn a berth in Sunday’s Super Bowl against the Los Angeles Rams, Prince has taken some lumps in his first extended opportunity to be an NFL starter. Across his seven total starts this year, Prince has allowed 24 quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. The Bengals have often won in spite of their offensive line rather than because of it, especially in their divisional round playoff win over the Tennessee Titans, in which they allowed the Titans to rack up a playoff-record nine sacks – though none of those sacks were charged to Prince.
From Ohio State to the NFL, things haven’t always gone smoothly for Prince, but he’s grateful to have the opportunity he does now to have a chance to win a Super Bowl, and he wants people to know that he’s working hard every day to be the best player he can be.
“I think all my teammates can probably say I’m very accountable,” Prince said. “I’m going to do the work, I’m going to spend the extra time, I’m going to go 1,000 percent in practice and I’m always going to make sure that I’m at my very best to get the job done. I’m gonna be in the tubs after practice. That’s just Isaiah Prince, Isaiah Prince just works really hard. I know that’s kind of something that everyone says, but that’s just me. I’m humble, I’m simple. I come to work every day and work as hard as I can.”
Pollack has been pleased with Prince’s growth, saying “the trajectory of his career is continuing to go up.”
“He’s grown tremendously, understanding the scheme, how to take advantage of some of the things that we’re doing from a protection standpoint and how he can change up his set angles and his hand strikes,” Pollack said. “He’s grown a lot in those areas, so I’m really excited about how he’s grown.”
“I know the type of player that I am, I know that I belong.”– Isaiah Prince
One reason why Prince works so hard is because he wants to protect Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, who he’s been playing with since they were teammates at Ohio State from 2015-17 and was then reunited with when the Bengals drafted Burrow out of LSU in 2020.
“Every time I go into the game, I’m thinking about Joe,” Prince said. “I’m thinking about protecting him not only as my job and my quarterback, but also as my brother. You want to stick up for your brothers, I think that’s part of being a team, and part of the relationship being so close, I do play hard for Joe too and not only just the team. That’s my brother, and as far as everybody else, I think I play hard for all my brothers as well.”
Burrow is just one of five former Ohio State teammates that Prince is now playing with on the Bengals – Eli Apple, Vonn Bell and Sam Hubbard are all starters on defense, while Keandre Jones (who transferred from Ohio State to Maryland for the end of his college career) is also on the roster – and Prince said that’s made his opportunity to start for a Super Bowl team even more special.
“It’s a huge blessing, and not many people get to say they get to move on to a professional sport and play with all their teammates from college,” Prince said. “I’m forever grateful and I love seeing those guys in the locker room every day.”
Prince believes their collective experience playing for Ohio State has helped prepare them for the success they’ve had in the playoffs and the challenge that now lies ahead as they play for an NFL title.
“We’ve played in so many big games, we’ve been to double overtime, I can’t name a game situation that I haven’t been in college football and I think that definitely helps prepare for moments like this and keeping your poise and staying focused when there’s a lot of chaos going around,” Prince said.