It’s extremely rare for a true freshman to earn a starting spot on the offensive line at Ohio State.
Michael Jordan did it as a guard in 2016. Before that, it was the great Orlando Pace who started every game during his freshman season of 1994.
It requires an unusual blend of physical and mental development to even see the field in your first year as a college player, let alone earn a starting spot.
However, Paris Johnson isn’t letting that discourage him.
The 6-foot-7, 290 lb freshman tackle is already close to college-ready physically. His combination of size and quickness made him the top prospect at his position in the 2020 recruiting class, and the No. 9 player in the nation overall.
But his preparation and drive are what stand out to OSU’s assistant athletic director for football sports performance Mickey Marotti.
“He’s been training at a level since he was in eighth grade differently than, some of the other linemen. It’s just all different,” Marotti said in January, after getting to see Johnson during winter workouts.
That’s just what the freshman wants people to see when they look at him.
“My expectations right now for this offseason and these winter workouts is that I want to come in, and I want to be known as one of the hardest-working people,” Johnson said.
The path to early playing time on the offensive line is never easy for a freshman, but it’s not impossible. The Buckeyes lost starting right tackle Branden Bowen and top reserve Josh Alabi to graduation. Starting left tackle Thayer Munford is back, as are Nick Petit-Frere, Dawand Jones, and Max Wray, among others.
Winning a spot on the two-deep is doable, and but Johnson said he’s aiming even higher. He wants to earn a starting role.
“I would like to. I get in the playbook enough and I work hard enough, I show the coaches that I’m ready to play and I go out there when it’s time to put the pads on, and I show that I’m ready to compete,” Johnson said. “I would like to compete to start as a freshman, God willing. But in the end, I just want to be on the field as much as possible in any way I can help this team get where you want to be.”
Johnson isn’t under any illusions about what that would involve. He went straight to the source: the last Buckeye offensive lineman to start from day one as a true freshman.
“I talked to Michael Jordan a lot about that. He told me that I can be the next one to do it,” Johnson said. “I just have to go out there and just put in the work to do it.”
“I can’t come in with that ‘next year mindset,’ that I’m going to be a backup guy this year and next year is my time. I can’t come in with that. I gotta come in here with the mindset, ‘I want to take somebody’s job’, because then that’s how I’m gonna work the hardest. Not try to work like a freshman, but work like an older guy.”
So how realistic is it to think he could earn a starting spot this fall?
“I know that’s his mindset right now. And he’s going to have to do that,” said OSU head coach Ryan Day. “But you don’t know where that goes or anything like that until we get into August.
“Right now it’s learning the playbook, learning where to go to class, learning all that stuff, learning the calls. He’ll do that. He’s very detail oriented. He wants to do it right. He’s very determined. And we have high hopes for him.”
One sign for Johnson’s chances to get on the field is which side of the line he’s playing on. If he’s repping at left tackle behind incumbent starter Munford, it’s more likely that he’ll be a backup this fall and potentially in line to start when Munford is gone in 2021.
If he’s working on the right side of the line where Bowen departed, there’s a better chance to see the field early in 2020. Day said it was still way too early to know where Johnson might start his career.
“Whether we start him at left or right, (OL coach Greg Studrawa) will figure that out as we get into March,” Day said.
Johnson knows that while the decision on starters will be made by the coaches, his role is largely going to be up to him.
“It’s all based on what I put on film, what I put in front of them,” Johnson said. “It’s all on me and what I want to do with this spring.”