Ohio State Football: Examining the Buckeyes' Most Important Position Battle
As Ohio State's 2013 season came to an end, Joel Hale came to a sobering conclusion. After beginning the year as a starter on Ohio State's defensive line, the junior defensive tackle was no longer as valued of a member of the Buckeyes roster as he was at the start of the year.
The emergence of freshman defensive end Joey Bosa shifted sophomore Adolphus Washington back inside to his original position of defensive tackle, effectively pushing Hale out of the OSU lineup. But rather than be content with spending his impending senior season as a reserve, the 6'4", 310-pounder approached Urban Meyer with a career-altering proposition.
"I wasn't doing what I wanted to do for the team toward the end of the season last year," Hale admitted. "That was bugging me. That was really bothering me and sticking with me. So I just wanted to do what I could and know that I can. I know I can do a lot more for the Buckeyes because I have a lot in my heart and a lot in my mind to make this team the best it can be. I went in with a change to the O-line in mind."
Meyer obliged, and with that, the three-year defensive lineman transformed into a first-year offensive lineman fighting in the most important position battle on Ohio State's most important unit. With the Buckeyes replacing four experienced starters from last season's offensive line, Meyer's already admitted that he's found his eyes drifting to one particular vacant spot.
"Left guard, left guard, left guard," Meyer unsolicitedly repeated during his opening fall camp press conference on Monday. "That's the one. If I had to say, 'Where's all the focus?,' to me, it's that left guard. What are we going to do with the left guard?"
That just so happens to be the position that Hale now finds himself at, although he's hardly a lock to be a starter when the Buckeyes take the field for their season opener against Navy on Aug. 30. In fact, the former defensive lineman is currently practicing as Ohio State's second-string left guard, as Antonio Underwood takes reps with the first team.
Jay LaPrete/Associated Press
A fourth-year junior, Underwood is no stranger to adversity himself, as a promising spring session a year ago was cut short when the Shaker Heights, Ohio, native tore his ACL. But despite having spent the better part of the past year recovering, the 6'3", 303-pound Underwood feels as though he's picked up right where he left off.
"Last spring, I started to gain the reputation of being consistent," Underwood said in the spring. "I've picked that up. Obviously, there's still stuff I need to work on, but I feel as though I'm getting better."
Hale isn't the only former defensive lineman making a push for the starting spot formerly occupied by Andrew Norwell, however, as Billy Price has also thrown his name into the mix. After arriving at Ohio State as a defensive tackle a season ago, the Buckeyes staff opted to move him to center midway through the year, ultimately redshirting Price to preserve an extra year of eligibility.
Now, Price finds himself vying to be a starter at not just one, but two positions on the OSU offensive line. And while he may not have the upper hand in either battle—Jacoby Boren or Chad Lindsay figure to start at center—the Youngstown, Ohio, native's status as one of the strongest players on the entire team makes him an intriguing candidate nonetheless.
"The first three days, he's practiced at guard and at center," Buckeyes offensive line coach Ed Warinner said of Price. "We rotate him in at guard as well because he's a physically talented guy. So there's a chance that if he wasn't the starter at center, he could be a starter at guard or a role player at either position."
Also mixing it up at left guard so far this fall have been fourth-year junior Chase Farris and true freshman Marcelys Jones. Both, however, are long shots to see significant playing time this season, as Farris has bounced between offense and defense throughout his career, and Jones is a likely redshirt candidate.
For now, Underwood remains the favorite to be facing off with the Midshipmen in 23 days, but Hale's veteran presence should push him to the very end. As a senior in his last go-round at a new position, the new offensive lineman has made it clear that he won't go down without a fight, as it's more than just a starting spot he's currently vying for.
"It's a huge risk," Hale admitted of his position switch. "I'm fighting for my life right now. I'm fighting everyday."
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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