Could OSU O-Line Turn Green This Spring?

Playing early on the Ohio State offensive line is rare but not unheard of, and three highly rated recruits who enrolled in time for spring practice are hoping to become the next in line. talked to a veteran player, coaches and the new guys to see what it might take for that goal to be met.

Like any Ohio State football recruit, freshman offensive lineman J.B. Shugarts would like to play sooner than later.

"Coach Bollman plays the five best players," Shugarts said on National Signing Day, referring by name to Ohio State offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Jim Bollman. "He rotates the best players in with the starting five, so I just have to prove myself. I've got to get in the weight room and get strong. I've got to get in shape and show the coaches what I can do on the field."

The challenge Shugarts and two other early-enrolling offensive linemen face this spring and autumn is daunting but surely not insurmountable, as proven by the four men to successfully answer the call in previous seasons.

Since Bollman came to Ohio State along with head coach Jim Tressel in 2001, four Buckeye offensive linemen have played significant minutes as true freshmen: Nick Mangold and Rob Sims (both 2002), Steve Rehring (2004) and Alex Boone (2005).

Sims, Rehring and Boone all started at least two games as first-year players, but an injury to a veteran was a major factor in each case. Mangold did not start any games but was called upon frequently late in Ohio State's last national championship season.

Why has it been so hard for youngsters to break into the lineup?

Well for one thing, that's how Bollman likes it.

Ben Person, who did not break into the starting lineup until 2007 when he was a fourth-year junior, told that Bollman admitted as much five years ago when the coach was recruiting Person out of Xenia High School, where he looked good enough to talent evaluators that some rated him Ohio's top offensive lineman for the class of 2004.

"He said he'd love to have 15 or so guys on scholarship and none would play until their third year," Person said. "Every now and then you might have a freak or a phenomenal player that comes in, but that's just how he said he'd love to have it."

With Mangold and Sims both having started 16 NFL games last season, Person would seem to be onto something. Rehring and Boone both remain in school, but there is every reason to believe playing for pay is in the future for both.

"The thing about being an offensive lineman is a lot of times it takes a guy two or three years just strength-wise," Bollman said prior to last season. "Naturally everyone we recruit is pretty big (and) we like to get strong guys, but still they'll all tell you –that's something that has to keep going and going and going. That's all part of the deal. Strength is something that doesn't happen overnight. I can teach you what to do fast, if you can learn it quick enough, but I can't make you strong fast. No way."

For those who can pass the strength test, there are two more hurdles, however. A prospect must also pick up the offense, and there ought to be a need for his skills, too. The latter only happens if the number of players at the position are low, which was the case with all four of the previous true freshmen to log significant minutes.

As for the mental aspect, Person called it, "Learning the big picture of football.

"Learning what's going on when safeties roll around and just seeing the field and learning what's going on at that snap, just knowing everything mentally. There's a lot for us to learn. For an O-lineman to come in here and play as a freshman, they're either a phenomenal player or just brilliant. More often than not, they're just a phenomenal player. Mangold was probably a little bit of both."

Shugarts and classmates Mike Adams and Michael Brewster hope to get a head start on the learning part this spring, although Brewster is not expected to take part in any contact drills as he recovers from offseason surgery. Bollman expressed confidence on signing day that they could be ahead of the game in the strength department.

"I think that they're guys that are already big enough to compete," Bollman said. "They've got to keep working on improving their strength but size-wise they're able to compete sooner than a lot of freshmen guys coming in."

Shugarts said at that time he had begun watching film of the team's tackles to begin building his knowledge even before the start of spring practice. He is willing to play any position on the line and believes he has what it takes to make a thrust for playing time.

"I'm a lean 300 pounds. I'm quick, I can move and I have pretty good strength. All those together makes me a great player," he said. "So far I've been learning the basic run plays and the basic pass plays, basic pass (protections) and how to read defenses better"

Even if any member of the trio does have what it takes mentally and physically to play early, he could be undone by the numbers game. Four starters return from last season, as do four other members of the final two-deep.

Tressel said March 26, one day prior to the start of spring practice, he believed the one open starting spot on the line – right tackle – was sophomore Bryant Browning's to lose after he spent his redshirt freshman as Ohio State's sixth lineman. Behind Browning last season was classmate Connor Smith, who also figures to make some noise in the right tackle derby.

But the head coach was not going to count out his new kids, either.

"It will be an interesting situation to see," Tressel said, adding that Bollman's tendency to rotate many linemen through more than one position up front makes it more difficult to peg who he is gauging for his starters. "I'm sure if I'm Mike Adams, I'm thinking, ‘I'm taking that spot over.' I hope that's what he is thinking."

"I think that it's how a whole situation evolves," Bollman said on signing day. "Who's going to rise up to compete against them that's already here?"

Finally, assuming that Bollman would root against any of his young pupils' winning that open spot would seem to be a mistake. He may have inadvertently betrayed as much last season when discussing the topic of young linemen playing early when he invoked the name of one of the best left tackles in the history of not just Ohio State but college football as a whole.

"Has anyone really come in and actually been the true starter from day one like Orlando Pace did?" Bollman said of the No. 1 pick of the 1998 NFL Draft. "No, not since I've been here."

He added with a smile, "I look forward to that day."

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