Cotton Bowl Struggles Call for a Need to Evaluate Ohio State’s Entire Offensive Line

By Andy Anders on December 31, 2023 at 12:13 pm
Justin Frye

Twelve months ago, the No. 1 question facing Ohio State outside of who its next quarterback would be was how it would build a championship-caliber offensive line after losing two All-American tackles and a sound starter at center.

Twelve months have passed and those questions haven't been resolved.

While some strides were taken up front over the course of the year, the Buckeyes had their worst performance of the season in the Cotton Bowl, rushing for a meager 2.9 yards per carry while allowing four sacks and eight quarterback hurries to Missouri’s front. The Tigers piled up 10 total tackles for loss.

Neither Devin Brown nor Lincoln Kienholz were given much of a chance to succeed under center. There were long stretches of play where it felt like the latter couldn't even get two seconds to plant his feet.

“I thought (Kienholz) battled his tail off,” Ryan Day said. “But clearly we didn’t help him up front. Didn’t run the ball well enough.”

Right guard Matt Jones, one of the most dependable parts of the Buckeyes’ offensive line this year, is out of eligibility. Left guard Donovan Jackson had his struggles – namely early in the year and down the stretch against Michigan, a game he has lamented – but at his best he was the best part of the front five. He’s got an NFL draft decision to make.

But the fact remains that Ohio State needs to take all, or nearly all, of its offensive line positions and potentially its offensive line coach and put them under the microscope in 2024. The returning pieces are either unproven or have been shown to have holes in their respective games, and there have been shortcomings both in recruiting and development.

I’ll be honest, I’ve never enjoyed singling out players in my stories, just as I’m normally not one to speak in the first person in one, even a column. Football is far too complex a game to ever point the finger in any one direction, but outings like this from a position group call for some soul-searching.

This isn’t an attack on anyone’s character or an elimination of the possibility that they could develop. It's also a very subjective evaluation of things, as there's a notorious lack of reliable stats as it pertains to offensive line play.

But in the last game of the season, Ohio State’s offensive line wasn't in the universe of what is expected from an Ohio State offensive line. They didn’t even meet the standard of a low-end Power 5 offensive line. Tight end Cade Stover lit into all of them before halftime and it didn’t change a thing.

There’s a long list of reasons to believe Ohio State’s players truly wanted to win this game. The defense playing out of its mind for nearly three quarters, the Buckeyes’ pregame talk, high-effort plays by Xavier Johnson, TreVeyon Henderson and Emeka Egubka on an offense that was otherwise anemic. A general lack of opt-outs including Stover’s decision to play through an injury.

I don’t believe the offensive line’s issues stemmed from a lack of motivation. There were just some clear shortcomings from the players that are projected to compose next year’s lineup.

Let’s work from right to left. Right tackle Josh Fryar is as loyal a Buckeye as you’ll find in the program. He has a great punch in the run game, the main reason why he was selected first-team All-Big Ten by the media and third-team by the coaches.

The issue is that he hasn’t shown he has the feet to block twitchy speed rushers off the edge at this point. Fryar allowed five sacks and 12 total pressures this season, per Pro Football Focus. 

Faster defensive ends have been able to round the corner on him and get straight to the quarterback at times this season, and Missouri took advantage of that phenomenon multiple times on Friday.

Fryar, to me, looks like he’s more built to play guard, where he spent multiple seasons prior to his move to the edge. I don’t watch these players practice on a daily basis but he has the base, strength and willpower to potentially handle interior pass rushes, plus that aforementioned punch in the run game. Ohio State’s tackle options were limited entering 2023, almost forcing Fryar to play there, but the right tackle spot is one to look at and evaluate for the Buckeyes.

Going back to the tweet above of a Missouri four-man rush that saw two defenders hardly touched, right guard might be the number one place where Ohio State will need to search for answers this offseason up front.

With Jones gone, Enokk Vimahi should be next in line at the position entering his sixth year at Ohio State as a former four-star prospect. He got his chance to prove it against the Tigers, receiving his first start of the season after center Carson Hinzman was removed from the starting lineup and Jones slid over to center in the Cotton Bowl.

“I don’t want to get too much into it, but Carson was having a tough time the last couple weeks in practice and we just felt like, all right, this was the right thing to do at the time,” Day said. “Was having a few issues there. It’s not that Carson will never play here again, but based on the last couple weeks of play, the decision was made that Matt gave us the best chance at center.”

Vimahi’s shot didn’t go well. Lapses like the one seen above were commonplace in both the run and pass games.

He’s someone one has to feel for. Vimahi, a Mormon, skipped his two-year mission trip out of high school to get to Ohio State right away. He’s stayed in the offensive line room for five years, three with Greg Studrawa and two now with Justin Frye.

When Hawaii, his home state, was hit with a devastating series of wildfires in August, Vimahi used his platform to call for donations to the Red Cross’ disaster relief fund.

On the field in the Cotton Bowl, he unfortunately did not bear much resemblance to a player who can start at Ohio State right now.

Perhaps that could change with a giant leap in the offseason. Josh Proctor broke out at safety as a sixth-year senior this year. But stories like Proctor’s are rare for a reason.

If Fryar does slide inside, he'd be a top contender to play right guard if it's not Vimahi. The best option outside those two might be Tegra Tshabola, who only recently slid inside from tackle. Luke Montgomery is also a possibility, but the highly-touted 2023 prospect was a tackle this season and might push for playing time there.

So, unless one of that bunch or perhaps rising redshirt freshman Austin Siereveld can claim that spot next year, it might be a necessary place to add in the transfer portal for Ohio State.

Center is another conundrum after Hinzman’s benching. Whatever happened over the last few weeks, he’ll have to work hard to overcome it. Otherwise, it’s rising second-year Josh Padilla and not much else for Ohio State at the position after transfers from Jakob James and Victor Cutler Jr.

If Hinzman wins his position back, his play will have to take a leap forward in his second year as a starter. And he'll need to do it with at least one new guard beside him.

The left guard spot will be filled by Jackson if he comes back, but if he chooses to leave, a second name from those listed above would need to step up on the interior if the Buckeyes make portal additions.

That leaves left tackle Josh Simmons. Simmons has always drawn praise from the staff for his physical attributes. He certainly seemed to get better as the year went on. But the mental side of the game has been an issue for him, and he too had plenty of key lapses against Missouri.

Fresh off a year committing 17 penalties at San Diego State, the most of any FBS offensive lineman in 2022, Simmons was flagged eight times for Ohio State this season. In the Cotton Bowl, there were a lot of unblocked defenders thanks to some creative Tiger blitzes thrown his way – ditto the entire line on that one – and he too struggled with speed off the edge.

“There was some zero pressure that came and they were aggressive on (Kienholz),” Day said. “In the run game, I felt like there were a couple of things that hit, but overall, when you have a young kid in there you have to be able to take some pressure off and we didn’t do that well enough.”

Overall, I feel that Simmons is capable of being a quality left tackle for Ohio State and even showed it at points this year, particularly in the second half of the campaign. But he has to be better than he was against Missouri to continue playing that important role.

Altogether, Ohio State’s offensive line was the team’s No. 1 issue all season. The Buckeyes rank just 73rd nationally with 4.2 yards per carry, their lowest average since 2004. The Cotton Bowl may have been the offensive line’s worst performance of the year, but it was far from an anomaly.

Assuming he’s still on the staff, next year could be a make-or-break year for offensive line coach Justin Frye, just as it could be for Day. His development process didn’t get the offensive line to where it needed to be this season, plain and simple, and Frye did not land any offensive linemen in this year’s recruiting cycle who rank among the top 100 prospects in 247Sports’ composite rankings.

This offseason requires an intense evaluation of where things stand, and it might call for an aggressive transfer portal strategy along the offensive line. That should have been the case regardless, but to say what happened in the Cotton Bowl was unacceptable is an understatement. Everything needs to come under the microscope after a performance like that to close a season.

Because football always has and will continue to start up front.

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