Ohio State Buckeyes: 5 positions to watch as season opener nears

Credit: David Jablonski

Ohio State Buckeyes practice at Ohio Stadium on Oct. 3, 2020.

Credit: David Jablonski

Ohio State football has long embraced the idea it reloads rather than rebuilds.

That is necessary when a program loses a handful or more impact players to the NFL on a year basis and expects to contend for the Big Ten championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff every year.

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Here is a look at five important spots still being worked out as the preseason winds down:

1. Right tackle

This might be the most important spot, and it is one where the Buckeyes hope to make up for a lack of experience with overwhelming talent.

Nicholas Petit-Frère is a redshirt freshman from Florida who played in 14 games last season. That includes one start — at Northwestern — in which he had some standout moments both good and bad.

A five-star talent, he has been considered The Next One since signing with the Buckeyes almost two years ago.

Paris Johnson Jr., who signed last winter but first verbally committed to Ohio State in the summer of 2018, has carried similar expectations for nearly as long.

Starting as a true freshman on the offensive line at Ohio State is rare, but Johnson still has a shot to join the likes of Michael Jordan and Orlando Pace.

“They’re both doing great,” head coach Ryan Day said of Petit-Frere and Johnson. “They’ll both play. You just don’t know until you get into the game week (who will start). I would say that Nick right now is taking most of the reps with the 1s. He looks really strong, has had a really good camp.”

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2. Deep safety

The last line of defense perhaps has never been more important than it is in today’s college football given the big-play offenses that have overrun the sport.

Third-year sophomore Marcus Hooker and junior Josh Proctor are battling to replace Jordan Fuller, who is having an impact with the Los Angeles Rams as a rookie.

“Jordan was probably the most unsung hero last season,” Day said. “H played really, really well. He did get some recognition but probably not as much as he deserved. He got everybody in the right calls, he communicated well. He tackled well. He really ran the middle of the field, so you can see what he’s doing in the NFL. He’s doing a great job there, so that was a big, big void there that we need to get filled.”

Hooker, the younger brother of former Ohio State All-American safety Malik Hooker, played in seven games defensively last season and all 14 on special teams.

Proctor had 13 tackles and an interception last season as Fuller’s backup and also was part of some of the team’s sub packages.

“I think (Proctor and Hooker) and Bryson Shaw and Lathan Ransom are all working hard, and they’ve shown flashes,” Day said. “They’ve done a good job. Consistency is critical, and as we get into that first game, they just have to play. And it’s hard to get a real feel for it until we get on the field and play that first game.”

3. Nose tackle

Junior Tommy Togiai is expected to take over for DaVon Hamilton after backing him up last season.

Togiai, who is considered one of the strongest players on the team, logged 16 tackles last season including two for loss.

Defensive line coach Larry Johnson said Jarron Cage, another junior, and true freshman Ty Hamilton (DaVon’s little brother) are both in the running to spell Togiai when needed.

“We’ll have three guys compete inside at nose tackle, and then we will have three guys complete 3-technique,” Johnson said. “We have some young players who’ve done a great job and are coming along, so I think we’ll be okay starting the season with six guys on the inside with the opportunity to play.”

4. Defensive tackle

While the nose tackle operates as the fulcrum of the defensive front, the man who plays the other interior spot is expected to cause more chaos.

Johnson said last week fifth-year senior Antwuan Jackson has looked good in the preseason and can play both inside spots.

“Antwuan has had a really great camp, I can tell you that,” Johnson said. “He’s done some really good thing, and him and Tommy Togiai are really the foundation of what we’re doing right now.”

Jackson is likely to begin as the No. 1 player at 3-technique but sophomore Taron Vincent and junior Haskell Garrett are expected to join the mix once they are fully healthy.

Cage and Hamilton are also capable of playing this spot while Johnson gave redshirt freshman Jaden McKenzie a shoutout for his strong work this month in practice.

5. Backup quarterback

They say the most popular person in many football towns is the backup quarterback, but that is not true when a standout like Justin Fields is the starter.

In 2020, the backup quarterback might prove to be one of the most important spots on the team, however. Of course injury is always a concern in football, but the COVID-19 pandemic adds another layer of importance to every reserve slot because of the prospect of a starter testing positive and missing three games or more.

Ohio State has veteran Gunnar Hoak and true freshmen C.J. Stroud and Jack Miller looking to be the No. 2 this fall.

Hoak, a three-star prospect from suburban Columbus who transferred from Kentucky last year, threw six passes for the Buckeyes last season.

His chance of being the first guy in should something happen to Fields likely increased with the cancelation of spring practice, but Stroud and Miller are both four-star prospects who bring intriguing upside to the position.

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