Saturday’s Student Appreciation Day made it clear just how important Donovan Jackson could be to Ohio State’s offensive line this season and beyond.
As expected, Jackson took all of the first-team reps at left guard during the portion of Saturday’s practice that was open to students and media members. Even though he played only 103 snaps with no starts last season as a true freshman, and even though he’s currently going through his first spring practices after just arriving at Ohio State last summer, Jackson already appears to have the starting left guard job locked up.
Ohio State’s coaches have shown confidence in Jackson all spring.
“He doesn't practice like a guy that just got here out of high school. He's not practicing now in the spring like this is my first spring. He's a very mature kid, very, very smart,” Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said in March. “I expect him as a first-year potential starter right now to be a guy that plays at a very high level. He is a very gifted, talented player and not just physically. He's got some stuff in his heart. And he's got a chance to be a special player.”
After getting his first taste of playing for the Buckeyes last fall – mostly as a backup guard, though also occasionally as a sixth offensive lineman/jumbo tight end with the first-team offense – Jackson is confident he’ll be prepared to start this fall as a true sophomore.
“I feel like I'm ready. I'm learning every day,” Jackson said last week. “Obviously, the expectations are there but when you come to Ohio State, there's always expectations. So I don't really let that bother me too much.”
The offensive linemen who will be lining up alongside Jackson already feel like they can trust him.
“He's a type where he makes one mistake and then he never makes it again,” left tackle Paris Johnson Jr. said. “So I tell him all the time, I'm so glad you're over here because I can play and I'm not thinking about anything else except my job, because I know that he's gonna be there, whether it's a run or pass play or anything.”
A five-star recruit who was ranked as the No. 1 interior offensive lineman in the recruiting class of 2021, Jackson seemingly has all the tools to be a dominant guard for the Buckeyes. At 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, Jackson has wowed coaches and teammates alike with his athleticism. Wilson has gone as far as to compare Jackson to star NFL offensive tackle Trent Williams, a nine-time Pro Bowler who Wilson once coached at Oklahoma.
“Donovan’s not there, but he's got some skills that are like, ‘Wow, like that's not an O-line skill. That's an athletic skill,’” Wilson said.
Ohio State center Luke Wypler described Jackson as a “freak athlete.”
“He's probably one of the fastest, strongest guys I've seen at his size,” Wypler said. “It's unbelievable. And I'm just excited to be able to share a field next to him and get to see him move in action this year.”
Jackson pairs that athleticism with strength, which he says is the part of his game he takes the most pride in. Jackson recently put up 28 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press – a number that would have been the fifth-best mark for an offensive lineman at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine – and he says he wants to “crush” and “run through” defenders when he’s on the field.
“I feel like I'm one of the stronger guys on the team,” Jackson said. “So I feel like getting them off the ball is what I have to do as someone who's strong.”
As gifted as Jackson is physically, he’s impressed his coaches and teammates just as much with his mental makeup, as he’s shown the ability to pick up concepts quickly in his first year on campus.
“He's very intelligent, very athletic, can process information at a pretty high level for his age,” Ryan Day said Monday.
Saturday’s practice showed that Ohio State trusts Jackson to handle a lot at once, as he not only took first-team reps at left guard but also took second-team reps at left tackle, indicating that the Buckeyes could potentially move Jackson outside if they need someone to fill in for Johnson or Dawand Jones at tackle.
Wilson has said multiple times that he believes Jackson would be capable of playing tackle if needed, and Day said the reason why the Buckeyes have him cross-training at both positions is because they don’t have the depth they need at tackle right now.
“We do that as sort of a depth, kind of rain insurance moving forward,” Day said. “As we start to get some guys back like Josh Fryar (who is unavailable due to injury this spring) and some of the guys who are a little nicked up, we’ll move him back to guard.”
That does lead one to wonder, though, if Jackson could eventually move to tackle next season if Johnson and/or Jones enters the 2023 NFL draft. Jackson says he’d be willing to move to tackle if that’s something Ohio State’s coaches ask him to do, but when asked if he thought he was better suited to play tackle or guard long-term, he decided that was a question best left unanswered.
“I'm not gonna say no. I'm not gonna say like ‘No, I can't do it.’ If they need me to play tackle, I'll pop out to tackle,” Jackson said. “But I'm playing whatever Coach Frye and Coach Day tells me to play.”
Jackson played left tackle at Episcopal High School (Bellaire, Texas), and while he is on the shorter side for a tackle at 6-foot-4, he has the length to make up for it with a 6-foot-11 wingspan. He believes he is more than capable of playing any position on the offensive line, and he says that’s what the Buckeyes’ coaches want him to be prepared to do.
“We have guys who can play every position. We had Paris playing guard last year and he was phenomenal and now he’s playing tackle and he’s just as good at it,” Jackson said. “So I just gotta fill the expectations as an Ohio State offensive lineman, keep it going.”
For now, however, the plan is for Jackson to be Ohio State’s starting left guard in 2022, and there’s plenty of believers within the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that he can be a dominant force at that position.
“Now it's about acquiring that discipline and skill, skill to play the guard at the highest level. And he can do it,” Day said. “Certainly he's athletically very, very gifted, and very smart, very conscientious. So the more reps he gets, the better he's gonna be.”