Who would Ohio State’s starting offensive tackle and center be if the Buckeyes had to play a game right now? Justin Frye and Ryan Day had no interest in divulging that information Wednesday.
As for who will be the starting offensive tackles and center when Ohio State plays its first game of the 2023 season at Indiana seven months from Thursday, Frye and Day don’t know the answer to that question right now. That’s to be determined over the course of the spring and summer as all three of those positions will be open for competition.
That leaves more questions about Ohio State’s offensive line than any other position group for the 2023 season. But Frye is excited about the competition that lies ahead.
“We got some younger guys, they’re less experienced guys, but they're all hungry. They all want to be good. They all want to get coached,” Frye said. “And so is it this guy here, do you move them here, we'll figure that out along the way. But the competition is really good … and as the dust settles, now we know there's open slots for some guys. So get a chance to see those guys compete and battle that out, on top of with really good players. We’ve got good players. We lost good players, and we'll replace them with good players.”
Ohio State has three holes to fill on its offensive line because both of its starting tackles (Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones) and its starting center (Luke Wypler) from this past season opted to enter the 2023 NFL draft, leaving left guard Donovan Jackson and right guard Matt Jones as the only returning starters on the offensive line.
While it was widely speculated Matt Jones could move to center and there was some thought Jackson could move to tackle, Day and Frye said Wednesday that they plan to keep Jackson and Jones at guard.
The likeliest candidate to fill one starting spot at tackle is Josh Fryar, who started one game at right tackle in place of Dawand Jones last season against Indiana and played the sixth-most snaps of any offensive lineman (231) in 2022. While Day and Frye haven’t outright named him a starter and wouldn’t say whether he would stay at right tackle or move to left tackle, their comments indicated he is a frontrunner to earn a spot in the lineup this year.
“It will be important for him to step in. He did play some for us last year,” Day said of Fryar. “And played well, but now it's different when you're a starter. So it's an important offseason for him.”
Three other offensive tackles were identified Wednesday as potential candidates to start opposite Fryar: Redshirt sophomore Zen Michalski and redshirt freshmen Tegra Tshabola and George Fitzpatrick. While Tshabola played in four games as a backup right guard last season, Day said the Buckeyes are planning to move Tshabola to tackle this year to compete for a starting job.
“I think we're gonna move Tegra to tackle. You have Zen at tackle. George has gotta have a great offseason. And then we're excited about some of those younger guys, being able to step into those roles, and see if they can give us something there,” Day said. “But we have to find two new starting tackles.”
Ohio State clearly has some concern about whether it has two starting-caliber tackles on its roster, as evidenced by its effort to land a tackle in the transfer market. The Buckeyes made offers to four offensive tackles during the winter transfer window, but all of them – Ajani Cornelius (who transferred from Oregon to Rhode Island), Jeremiah Byers (UTEP to Florida State), Dillon Wade (Tulsa to Auburn) and Jarrett Kingston (Washington State to USC) – chose to go elsewhere.
If the Buckeyes don’t feel as though they have two starting-caliber tackles on their roster at the end of spring, they could make another effort to pursue a transfer tackle during the post-spring transfer window. Even if they do think they have two capable starters, they could still mine the portal for additional depth and competition. Frye says they’ll see how the spring goes first before deciding whether they need to pursue a transfer tackle in May.
“We'll get through spring football and reevaluate and just sit and say, ‘Alright, do we have enough production where we can go win?’” Frye said. “And if we do, great. If we don’t, and maybe we do but something else happens, well then if you can add quality depth or you can add guys to the room for great competition to get your production even more, then that's a good thing.”
Ohio State has already added one transfer offensive lineman in former Louisiana-Monroe left tackle Victor Cutler, but Cutler is set to compete for the starting center job this spring along with redshirt freshman Carson Hinzman. Redshirt junior Jakob James could also factor into that competition in preseason camp, but James will be unavailable for spring practices due to injury.
“I think Carson Hinzman has had a really good bowl practice. Jakob won't be here this spring but he'll be in the battle. Vic has also played some center,” Day said. “So we'll try to figure out, out of those three, if we can find a starting center there.”
While Ohio State knew all along that it would likely have to replace Johnson and Dawand Jones this year, Day said the Buckeyes thought Wypler would return for another year. His decision to enter the NFL draft prompted their decision to bring in Cutler.
“We were hoping that Luke would not declare. But he did, and wish him nothing but the best of luck and he'll be a very good pro,” Day said. “But yeah, that one we didn't really, certainly expect. So we have to be able to adapt. And that was part of bringing in Vic and figuring out what that's going to look like.”
Frye isn’t making any predictions right now about who will emerge as Ohio State’s starting tackles and center, at least not publicly, saying the only thing he knows is the Buckeyes will have five starting offensive linemen when the season starts Sept. 2. Those five offensive linemen, Frye said, will be the offensive linemen who demonstrate over the course of the offseason that they can be counted on to get the job done.
“What do they need to do? They just need to produce,” Frye said. “Once you get to spring football and they go, you're just looking for production, and if they produce at a high enough level for us to win games. That's all we're looking for. That's our job as coaches and our job is training them and getting them to put them in the best situation so that they can go play that way.”
“We’ve got good players. We lost good players, and we'll replace them with good players.”– Justin Frye on replacing Paris Johnson Jr., Luke Wypler and Dawand Jones
Day says the candidates to start up front need to show consistency in order to earn starting jobs, which he thinks stems from a combination of toughness – physical, mental and emotional – as well as ability and knowing what they’re doing.
“You have to be tough, you have to be smart, you have to know what you're doing,” Day said. “When you look at the guys who end up making it in the NFL or guys who make it at the highest level of college football, it isn't just because they're super talented. It's because they've failed, they've learned, they’ve found different tricks of the trade. But ultimately, they're tough. And they're smart. So all those things tie into the consistency that we're looking for.”