Three rookie offensive linemen out of Ohio State saw significant playing time as starters throughout the 2014 NFL season, including playoff runs.
But as the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers benefited from the presence of Corey Linsley, Jack Mewhort and Andrew Norwell, respectively, the 2014 Buckeyes were left wondering what was next at offensive line.
That wonder turned into a panic as OSU — replacing four out of five regular starters up front — struggled mightily to block the opposition through two games.
In week one against Navy, redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett was sacked only once, but sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott averaged just 3.7 yards per carry on 12 total attempts, despite the OSU line having a significant size advantage. So through one game, junior Taylor Decker — the only returning starter on the line — and redshirt-sophomore Pat Elflein, redshirt-freshman Billy Price, junior Jacoby Boren and redshirt-senior Darryl Baldwin were waiting to impress.
And their next chance resulted in a basic disaster, with the line crumbling around Barrett, leading to seven sacks — six in the fourth quarter — at the hands of the Virginia Tech Hokies. And with the line’s worst performance of the year — OSU averaged just 2.7 yards per carry — came the Buckeyes’ first and only loss.
It’s safe to say OSU fans were wishing Linsley, Mewhort and Norwell suddenly gained an extra bit of eligibility to salvage a crumbling season at the time, but instead the current Buckeye linemen began to turn it around.
To say Kent State was overmatched in its 66-0 loss to OSU is fair, but the line certainly showed improvement as freshman running back Curtis Samuel rushed for 100 yards without losing even one, and Barrett wasn’t sacked. The win brought cautious optimism, but it was the next two weeks that truly showed the line’s improvement.
Look no further than Elliott’s numbers against Cincinnati and Maryland. He had 182 yards against the Bearcats, then followed up with 139 against the Terrapins. Sure, he’s a good player, but those numbers come with six players executing at a high level — Elliott and the entire line.
From that point on, the Buckeyes ran off three more wins against lower-level Big Ten opponents — with the line playing well all the while — before beating the Michigan State Spartans in the grittiest game of the season, save perhaps in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Then a win over Minnesota was followed by huge days for Elliott against Indiana and Michigan, with the line paving the way.
And from that point on, the national media have covered the story. Elliott piled on 696 yards and eight touchdowns against three top-15 opponents as the Buckeyes ran to a victory in the first-ever College Football Playoff National Championship.
None of that would have happened without the development, both individually and as a group, of Decker, Elflein, Boren, Price and Baldwin.
Now looking ahead to 2015, the line will be a strong point instead of a breaking point, with all but Baldwin returning with another year of experience under their belts.
Decker, Elflein, Boren, Price and a sure-to-be top talent at right tackle are set to open their season against Virginia Tech on Sept. 7 in Blacksburg, Va.