With only the Cotton Bowl showdown with USC standing between Ohio State and the offseason, many OSU fans have already started looking ahead at what the 2018 Buckeyes could look like.
The offense next fall will have to replace some significant pieces, but has the chance to be a juggernaut. Dwayne Haskins, Joe Burrow, and Tate Martell will return at quarterback, giving the Buckeyes multiple promising options to replace J.T. Barrett. While some skill position players could jump early to the NFL draft, J.K. Dobbins and perhaps Mike Weber will be back at running back, along with a solid group of wide receivers and tight ends.
The biggest question marks will be up front, where the team will have to replace both the skill and leadership of all-conference LT Jamarco Jones and all-American and Rimington Award-winning C Billy Price. Promising Buckeye offenses have short-circuited due to shaky line play in the past, but the departing leaders said they were confident that the young guys behind them were ready to step up to the first team.
“I’ve been actually thinking about it a lot just watching some of the young guys,” said Jones. “I know at tackle, Josh Alabi has been practicing really well. Thayer (Munford) too. I think Thayer is going to be really good.”
Alabi backed up Jones at LT throughout the 2017 season, while Munford was second-team at RT behind Isaiah Prince. Jones said he wouldn’t be surprised if Prince moved to the other side of the line to the higher profile and higher pressure spot at LT, protecting the quarterback’s blind side.
“I’m not sure what their plan is but I definitely think he could do it,” Jones said of Prince. “He’s taken some snaps at left tackle throughout this season too, so I definitely think he could do it.”
Alabi gave up a critical sack while serving as an injury fill-in during the Buckeyes’ loss at Iowa, but Jones reiterated to reporters that the young tackle has made significant strides since then.
“Josh Alabi has been having some really good practices the last few weeks, even before bowl practice,” Jones said. “And so now I expect him to improve even more throughout the bowl season and this offseason.”
Both guard spots figure to be in good shape, with three starters returning for just two positions. LG Michael Jordan will come into 2018 with two years of starting experience under his belt. RG Branden Bowen started the first six games of this year before suffering a broken leg against Maryland. Demetrius Knox stepped into Bowen’s place and started the last seven games at RG, providing the Buckeyes two solid choices.
Bowen could also move back outside to tackle, a position he played during the spring.
“He’s a selfless guy and he’ll do whatever the team needs,” Price said. “So if Coach says, ‘I really need you to play tackle,’ Branden will go play tackle. We said to him in the middle of preseason camp, ‘We’re going to try you at guard. How do you feel about that?’ ‘Alright, let’s go do it.’ And I said, ‘Okay, block that guy,’ and he went and blocked that guy. That’s just the type of guy Branden is.”
At center, Brady Taylor figures to be the next man up, but he has some big shoes to fill. The Buckeyes’ 2016 and 2017 centers (Pat Elflein and Price) both took home the Rimington Award as the top player at their position in the country. Price said there is no doubt Taylor will be up to the challenge.
“I think it’s Brady’s position to lose at this point because the kid’s been in the program four or five years now, he’s continued to get better,” Price said.
“I think the big thing is he’s had so many people in front of him,” Price said. “Consecutive people over the years that have set that foundation. You start that with Brady’s freshman year, Jacoby Boren, Pat, myself. Brady’s got that time. Brady’s got in. When we take care of a team early and making sure he can get that second half, he can get those reps, and again, he builds confidence in the coaches and the team.”
Price also said that in addition to getting Taylor extended playing time in blowout wins, the coaches are also taking advantage of the incumbent’s experience to get his backup some extra work against top-notch competition during bowl practices.
“Brady’s getting a lot of reps right now. So we’re splitting. If it’s a five-set series, I’m getting two, he’s getting three. Just to keep me going and making sure I don’t lose a step or anything and then with Brady as well. Just to continue his development and getting prepare for that type of game speed. Because our D-line is one of the fastest out there,” said Price.
Price had no question that the guys behind he and Jones would be ready to step in for them, both on the field and in the locker room as well.
“I know that the culture that’s set in there, Isaiah Prince and Mike Jordan are kind of going to be those leaders with Brady, and Demetrius and Branden,” Price said. “Just to really continue to push that and continue to sharpen each other.”