Eight months ago, Carson Hinzman had never snapped a football.
The four-star offensive line recruit didn’t even see the field for a single rep in his first season at Ohio State. But four practices into the Buckeyes’ spring schedule, Hinzman sounds like the frontrunner to replace Luke Wypler as Ohio State’s new starting center.
With Jakob James limited all spring due to injury, the vacancy figured to be a two-man race between Hinzman and Louisiana-Monroe transfer addition Victor Cutler. But if Ryan Day’s Tuesday comments are any indication, the second-year Wisconsin native seems to have an early leg up on the competition.
“So far, I've been impressed with the way Carson's come out and competed early on. Vic is learning the offense,” Day said. “I think he would tell you that practicing every day at Ohio State is something that he's adjusting to, but he has the ability, has athleticism, got a great attitude. So I think we'll see the best football out of him as we get closer to the middle of spring practice. But I've been pretty pleased with what's going on at center."
Hinzman was an interior line prospect out of Saint Croix Central High School, but he didn’t necessarily come to Ohio State to play center. In fact, first-year offensive line coach Justin Frye started Hinzman out at right tackle in his first few months in the program, as Hinzman said he wanted him to “feel the speed of the game before I moved inside.” But as Hinzman puts it, “I'll play center to safety, whatever they need me to do for the team.”
He got his first chance in the middle of the offensive line during the second week of last season’s fall camp, and the unexpected opportunity was something of a trial by fire.
“My first play at center was with the twos because Jakob was hurt. So I've been snapping the ball for three days, and Frye texted me that morning, 'Hey, you're starting today,'” Hinzman said. “I was like, ‘All right.' First ball, snapped it right over Kyle (McCord)’s head. It was awful. But yeah, so it hasn't been long, obviously.”
That brief stint in practice didn’t earn Hinzman any playing time during his true freshman season. Still, he began turning the corner during bowl practices in the lead-up to Ohio State’s College Football Playoff matchup with Georgia. That’s when Frye delivered a message that’s stuck with Hinzman ever since and something that’s continued to motivate him this spring.
“Frye was just talking about how every practice from there on, since the start of bowl prep, is gonna be vital to what I want to do here. And looking at what I want to do here and trying to be a starter and doing everything I can to get that part, obviously spring is gonna be vital for that,” Hinzman said. “We have a really, really good competition, a lot of really good guys in our room. I think personally that spring is where most of the growth will happen at. And I think to be able to play, or have the opportunity to play among the best two guards and arguably, as the season goes on, some of the best four guys we have in the country – I feel like I don't want to waste that opportunity. I feel like that's something I really, really want to capitalize on.”
No matter where Hinzman thought he stacked up in the pecking order after Wypler declared for the NFL draft, his spot was threatened eight days later when Cutler announced his decision to transfer to Ohio State. A tackle at his last stop, Cutler’s 6-foot-3, 302-pound frame was likely to translate to the interior at Ohio State, and he quickly confirmed that the Buckeyes brought him in to compete at the center position.
Hinzman knows Cutler has an experience advantage over him but said the move never deterred him from pursuing his goal this offseason.
“Victor's an awesome athlete. He's an experienced guy. He's played a lot of football, a lot more football than I have. So he's definitely been a great competitor. He's been a great guy to come in and help competition,” Hinzman said. “Obviously, that mindset, I was a little bit kind of like, 'All right, they brought in another guy.' I wouldn't say that took me down or anything like that. It just kind of built me up. Like, all right, this is where I really got to show out if I want to do what I want to do. So having that extra drive and that extra work ethic, especially in the winter, really helped.
“And then kind of attacking that into the football piece and stuff like that. Making sure I'm super fine-tuned on everything I want to do, on every extra rep I do, every extra thing I come in and do with Coach Mike (Sollenne) or any of the other guys who want to come in with. But it's definitely been a great competition. And I'm looking forward to what happens in the fall.”
But despite impressing Day and company early on, Frye said Hinzman still has a long way to go to round out his skill set at a position he’s never actually played during a game.
“He's getting thrust in. He's not even been here 12 months, so 12 months ago from now, he was still like baling hay and knocking icicles off the barn up in Wisconsin,” Frye said. “So now there's Mike Hall and Tyleik (Williams) and all those guys in front of him. Just getting out and competing that way has been good to see. Because you never know how these guys are gonna go until you let them go play the game. And so obviously we don't have games, but taking those lives reps. He's embraced it. He's won some, and he's lost some, so you gotta learn from those, right?”
Hinzman said nerves were only natural when he began receiving first-team reps in practice, but he’s quickly grown comfortable playing alongside returning starters Donovan Jackson and Matt Jones on the inside. Hinzman said he’s not trying to be a “superstar” at this stage in his development and is happy to lean on his teammates as he learns the ropes.
Hinzamn credited Jackson, in particular, for his leadership and guidance throughout the process.
“Donovan's doing the most amazing job I think anyone can, leading the team, helping me,” Hinzman said. “There was play on Tuesday where I left Donovan dangling, and it was completely my fault. And he came over to me and he got on me a little bit and I needed that. The play right after that, we fixed it and got it going. So it's been an honor to play with those guys. I'm hoping that we can continue to play with that and continue to grow and get better as much as we can.”
In turn, Jackson praised Hinzman for the work he’s put in thus far, and sees far more potential in his ability moving forward.
“Carson's very smart. He's always asking for tips to progress his way of watching film, tips of IDing plays correctly, make sure not only the O-line, but the QBs and the RBs are on the same page as well,” Jackson said. “So Carson is taking strides in the right direction. I'm excited to see him grow. This is the second practice of us hitting. He's already making good strides in what he can become. He's just trying to stack days.”
A starting job is far from guaranteed for Hinzman. Frye credited James for working diligently while he’s held back with an injury, and Day said Cutler’s best football might come later in the offseason. But while the prospect may seem surreal for Hinzman, he said he’ll be fully prepared when the moment arrives.
“God's blessed me with the opportunity to be here, and I would not bat an eye (if I was named the starter). I'm not gonna believe it until I see the roster going against Indiana,” Hinzman said with a laugh. “But if that's what they need me to do, I will not hesitate one bit.”