Several offensive linemen in the Ohio State football program have likened their approach to strengthening and reshaping one another to an assertion in Proverbs: Iron sharpens iron.
If that is the case, and OSU’s offensive line wholeheartedly believes it is, then expect the Buckeyes’ pass protection to be much improved in the upcoming season.
Every day in spring practice, the OSU offensive line challenges itself, dropping back to protect the passer against the highly touted Rushmen package.
“We look forward to having that challenge,” said redshirt senior center Billy Price. “We look forward to going against those defensive line guys every single day. Because, again, I got the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year (redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis) across from me all the time. I got guys who are going to be on the first-team Big Ten list this year.”
The Rushmen are led by Lewis, who led OSU with eight sacks and 10.5 tackles for losses. He is joined by defensive ends redshirt junior Sam Hubbard, senior Jalyn Holmes and sophomore Nick Bosa.
Price said he believes that not only could all four start for any college team in the nation this season, but that each could be first-round picks in the 2018 NFL draft.
“If that doesn’t get us better, then, oh boy,” Price said.
Last season, OSU allowed 28 sacks, an average of 2.15 per game. This tied it at 68th in the nation with Florida, Arkansas State, Boston College and Kentucky.
The pressure on redshirt senior quarterback J.T. Barrett was even more noticeable when compared to the 18 sacks the Buckeyes gave up during the 2015 season.
“I mean, it’s hard to not mention it, just because that’s not our culture around here, you know?” said senior left tackle Jamarco Jones.
Price feels the pressure to improve in pass protection immediately.
“Unfortunately, it’s never something you can just avoid and just kind of say, ‘Ah OK, it’s no big deal,’” Price said. “It’s something that you have to continue to work on, and that’s something that we acknowledge.”
Pass-protection problems contributed to OSU’s first loss last season, 24-21 to Penn State.
“Offensively, we didn’t control the line of scrimmage. (Barrett) was under pressure all night when we threw it,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said following the Penn State game.
Price said he sees the correlation between the loss and offensive line issues and believes there is causation between the two factors.
“As you saw, in games that we struggle as a team, the offensive line struggles,” he said. “In games that we absolutely dominate and blow people out, the offensive line is just dominating and blowing people out.”
Two days after the loss to the Nittany Lions, during a press conference, Meyer had to affirm junior right tackle Isaiah Prince would be keeping his starting job. The first-year starter had come under fire after giving up multiple pressures and a sack on the offense’s final, futile drive.
But a few months later, Jones sees Prince progressing in practice and believes he will be a key kog in the offensive line.
“He’s having a great spring right now. He’s battling his tail off — we all are,” Jones said.
Even some on the defensive side of the ball noted Prince has stood out.
“Isaiah’s improved a lot, especially from y’all talking about him a lot,” said redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones.
Price noted this will be Prince’s and sophomore left guard Michael Jordan’s second seasons as starters, and he expects them to make a steep improvement.
“There’s a lot more continuity and chemistry within the offensive line as the guys going from one year to two years now, and I think you’ll be able to see that,” Price said.
One of the only offensive line spots lacking continuity is right guard. With Pat Elflein heading to the NFL, Price slid over to the middle of the line while a group of linemen battle for his former spot to the right of the center.
“Demetrius Knox is running with the ones and Malcolm Pridgeon is still learning the offense, but Matt Burrell is probably one of the most improved offensive lineman at this point and the other guys are much improved as well,” Meyer said.
Knox replaced Jordan in the Fiesta Bowl after he went out with an ankle injury. Pridgeon missed last season with a knee injury.
No matter who wins the starting right guard spot, Jamarco Jones said he knows the unit up front must take a step forward to live up to the high expectations placed upon it.
“And that was the thing last year, we didn’t have a year that was acceptable for Ohio State O-line,” Jones said. “We got to have a chip on our shoulder to get back to where we were before.”