Underwood Earns Starting Nod at Right Tackle
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the first time in 25 games, Ohio State will have a new right tackle against Purdue this Saturday in West Lafayette.
The Buckeyes lost their regular starter when senior J.B. Shugarts limped off the field with a sprained knee during the third quarter of last week’s 34-20 win over Indiana.
“I don’t think J.B. will make it,” OSU Head Coach Luke Fickell said during his Thursday press conference.
“I think it’s going to be too quick for him.”
Photo by Jim Davidson
Shugarts, who has started 32 games in his four-year career, has not missed a game since Nov. 2009, but he was replaced by freshman Antonio Underwood in tie game against the Hoosiers.
The freshman out of Shaker Heights had not played a meaningful snap in his career since arriving in Columbus back in June, but it appears as though his audition went better than many would have expected.
“Right now it looks like it will probably be Underwood,” Fickell said when asked who would replace Shugarts in the starting lineup.
“But there are some other combinations we can jumble around if we have to.”
If they wanted to, there are more experienced guys who are capable of playing right tackle. Andrew Norwell and Marcus Hall have both started games at that position during their Ohio State careers. Jack Mewhort can play pretty much anywhere up front, and moving him to tackle would allow them to get Corey Linsley on the field.
But they don’t want to move guys around right now, not with the way this group has performed since the return of Mike Adams five weeks ago. They could use Hall, who started the first five games of the season at right guard, but hasn’t played tackle since his freshman year in 2009.
“I played a little bit of right tackle and Marcus Hall played a little bit of right tackle,” Mewhort said after practice Tuesday.
“Everybody pitched in and I think a lot of different guys can play different positions. That’s good for us.”
Hall is currently backing up Norwell at left guard, but the Buckeyes made a decision early on not to redshirt Underwood for such a reason as this.
“Sometimes as a young guy you don’t get as many opportunities to play in football games. You go to that, ‘do you redshirt people, do you not redshirt people.’ If you can get the reps in practice, and they’re good reps with the ones and twos at times, it’s very well worth to have a guy not redshirting,” Fickell said Thursday.
“That’s the situation. He hasn’t had a ton of reps in game situations, but has taken a ton of reps in practice and gone against good guys. We feel comfortable in everything he’s done. He stepped in last week and did a very good job for us and we expect him to do even better this week.”
That might come as a surprise to fans who remember all the talk about this 2011 crop of offensive linemen. None of them were rated very highly by recruiting services, and some even said the Buckeyes wasted scholarships on the three guys other than Brian Bobek, who is currently the team’s No. 2 center behind Michael Brewster.
One guy who wasn’t saying that was LeCharles Bentley.
“Antonio is everything a coach could want in an offensive lineman. He's a big, strong, smart, powerful, physical and most importantly, tough,” Bentley said back when Underwood was a three-star prospect.
“His base and ability to bend his knees are phenomenal. Although he is bigger than his opponents, he still plays with leverage and not weight. He explodes off the ball with bad intentions and really looks to dominate his opponents.”
Bentley, who was an All-American center for the Buckeyes and a five-year starter in the NFL, worked with Underwood at his “O-Line Academy” in Cleveland. He also worked with Glenville’s Aundrey Walker, who signed with USC, but Bentley saw something special in Underwood.
“I've seen some good film of the best offensive linemen in the state and Antonio Underwood is the most college ready of everybody,” he said at the time.
“Offensive line is the most difficult position to earn a starting nod as a true freshman. Considering Ohio State's lack of depth and Underwood's ability, at this time next year he should be training to be a starter.”
Those words have proven to be prophetic, as Underwood would appear to be cutting his teeth at a young age with the idea of replacing Shugarts at right tackle next season.
“He’s young, so mentally there’s a little bit of a curve,” said Mewhort, who is a first-year starter on the line.
“I’m going to be playing next to him, so I have to make sure I communicate everything on the field to him, but physically, he’s a great athlete. He has great feet and he pass blocks well. I think he did a great job against Indiana when he came, so we’re excited to see a little bit more.”
Bentley liked the fact Underwood was a “puncher” and not a “grabber,” something he sees as rare at the high school level.
“The ability to punch is critical at the collegiate level because of the many stunts and twist run by college defensive lineman,” Bentley said in his review.
“A lineman has to be capable of engaging one defender then immediately engage another and grabbing isn't how you get it done.”
Underwood wasn’t penalized in his first opportunity to get on the field. In fact, he wasn’t really noticed at all, which is never a bad thing when it comes to a young tackle playing in space.
“He was composed out there, he didn’t get flustered at all. He was collected, that was good to see also,” Mewhort said.
“He’s intense, he’s physical, he keeps his feet moving. That’s what you like to see out of a young guy.”
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