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Next Man Up: How Buckeyes replace Branden Bowen on offensive line

Spencer Holbrook04/30/20

Ohio State had an incredible season last year on its way to the College Football Playoff, where it nearly beat Clemson and advanced to the national title game. Many of the key players from that team moved onto the NFL. Who could step in to make plays similar to what the former Buckeyes made last season? Lettermen Row is breaking down key plays and who could make them. Next up: How the Buckeyes can replace Branden Bowen on the offensive line.

COLUMBUS — The buzz surrounding the open right tackle spot at Ohio State has been loud since last season ended in December.

And just because spring practice was largely canceled doesn’t mean it has stopped at all.

One of the best offensive lines in the country is replacing two starters, and while Harry Miller seems to have a strong hold on the left guard slot, the right tackle job is wide open after Branden Bowen graduated and signed in the NFL.

Bowen beat out former five-star prospect Nicholas Petit-Frere in fall camp last year to earn a starting role for the College Football Playoff-participant Buckeyes. And now Petit-Frere is locked into another battle for the same spot. It’s not with a fifth-year senior this time, though. He’ll be going against a redshirt freshman and a true freshman.

“Nick’s played a little bit for us,” Ohio State offensive line coach Greg Studrawa said. “And he’s got some experience, but what I saw out of Dawand [Jones] and Paris [Johnson], two young guys in three days of spring practice, I couldn’t believe it, how far Dawand has come and how advanced and mature Paris is for a freshman.”

Branden Bowen-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Ohio State will have to find a replacement for Branden Bowen at tackle. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Three days won’t determine a starting spot along the offensive line, but it was a good taste of what is to come when the Buckeyes return to the practice field. All three seem to be gaining ground. That job may not be settled until September.

“The first three days of spring practice were unbelievable, just to see those guys go out there and compete,” Studrawa said. “That’s what it’s going to take. It’s going to take someone that wants to go out there and grab that position by the you-know-what and say that they want it. … I believe all three of them are capable.”

Bowen grabbed the spot once fall camp opened last season. It might take until then for Studrawa, Ryan Day and the coaching staff to find the next piece on the offensive line.

Ohio State options

Nicholas Petit-Frere: A product of Tampa, Florida, Petit-Frere is the highest-rated offensive linemen to ever commit to Ohio State. In two seasons, Petit-Frere has started just one game and been developing under Studrawa and the offensive staff. This season might be a make-or-break year for him, given that the two tackles he’s competing for the job against are younger than he is. In his lone start last season against Northwestern, Petit-Frere wasn’t perfect, but he proved that he can play in a Big Ten game without struggling. He’ll have to elevate his game to match his potential as a recruit, but he might have the inside track to winning the job.

Paris Johnson-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State freshman Paris Johnson enrolled early, but he only got three spring practices. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Paris Johnson Jr.: Johnson hasn’t hidden from his desire to win the starting job as a true freshman for Ohio State. He’s the second-highest rated offensive linemen ever to commit to Ohio State, behind only Petit-Frere. Those two are the headliners of the right tackle position battle, although Johnson may have lost momentum with the cancelation of spring practice — his first true chance to show the coaching staff he’s ready for the job. If he can make that up with a good fall camp, he might make the decision for Studrawa even more difficult.

Dawand Jones: The wild card of the group is Dawand Jones, who checks in at a massive 6-foot-8 and 359 pounds. The sophomore was thought to be a developmental redshirt candidate last season, but he made huge strides and kept his weight down, allowing him to appear in 10 games and take 90 offensive snaps as a backup. Is he ready to take the next step and find a starting role on the offensive line? It might be hard to beat out Petit-Frere and Johnson, but Jones has shown he can make plenty of progress in a short amount of time.

The pick: Nicholas Petit-Frere

The path for Petit-Frere to live up to his recruiting ranking couldn’t be more clear. Although he’s going against two talented tackles, including a five-star freshman who has planned on starting at Ohio State for years, Petit-Frere has the inside track to win the job, especially with the lack of spring practice. He’s the most experienced tackle candidate on the roster and is the only option of the three who has starting experience. Petit-Frere lost this job opportunity to Branden Bowen last season. This year will likely be different.