The start that will feel like the longest coming Saturday when Ohio State takes on Florida Atlantic could be made by a player who isn’t even a first-time starter.
When Branden Bowen takes the field at right tackle for the Buckeyes, it will mark the end of a nearly two-year process that started with a broken leg, continued with complications and concludes at the start of a season full of promise both for him and an offense that returns only four starters from 2018.
“It’s definitely emotional,” he said Tuesday. “Just seeing the news a few few minutes ago, it was hard not to break down and cry because it’s been a long road. It’s definitely been very, very difficult. Something I’ve never even thought about dealing with prior. But it’s good. I’m happy I went through it. It’s made me a much better person, a much better player and a much better man. So I’m excited.”
The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Bowen already won a starting job once, practicing well enough in the 2017 preseason the coaching staff moved him from guard to tackle to get him on the field.
His sophomore season ended with a broken leg against Maryland, but that was just the beginning of an arduous road back to being able to play.
The break did not heal correctly, necessitating another surgery last fall that further delayed his comeback.
Although he did not play in a game in 2018, Bowen was able to practice some and was full-go this past spring.
To get back into the starting lineup, he had to hold off a strong challenge from redshirt freshman Nicholas Petit-Frere, a five-star recruit who was the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect in the country as a high school senior in 2017.
“It’s really beneficial to have a player like that to go against every day,” said Bowen, noting the lineman practice not only against talented defensive ends such as Chase Young and Jonathan Cooper but also players in their own position group. “We constantly push each other to make each other better, and I think that made us both better than we could have ever imagined.”
Head coach Ryan Day said Bowen has kept a positive attitude throughout his tribulations and improved physically under the guidance of strength and conditioning chief Mickey Marotti.
“I just love his approach right now,” Day said. “He’s practicing at a high level, and when you are going against Chase Young and Coop and those guys everyday in practice, if you’re blocking them you’re doing a hell of a job. And he has. He’s done that.”
Day also praised Bowen’s maturity.
“He’s shown some leadership,” Day said. “He’s more an example guy than a vocal guy, but this is a guy who I think is going to have a great year.”
Several players have come and gone from the offensive line room since Bowen was last a starter, but that is not the biggest change in his life since the last time he was a member of the starting lineup.
When Bowen takes the field Saturday, he will have a fiancé and a baby boy cheering him on.
“The stakes are definitely higher,” the fifth-year senior said, “but at the same time, the support system is also a lot better, in my opinion, at least. Having my fiancé to go home to and my son to look up at me every night… there’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of support there as well. So it’s kind of balances itself out.”
Joining Bowen in the starting lineup will be left tackle Thayer Munford, guards Jonah Jackson and Wyatt Davis and center Josh Myers.
Day said Petit-Frere will see some playing time, too, but how much remains to be seen.
Also expected to get into the game are Gavin Cupp and true freshman Harry Miller.
While Miller is a five-star prospect who just arrived in June after finishing his high school career in Georgia, Cupp’s wait to make it into the two-deep has been long.
Cupp arrived from Leipsic, Ohio, a year ahead of Myers and Davis, but the two five-star 2017 recruit passed him on the depth chart last season.
He repped with the first team in the spring only to lose the No. 1 left guard spot to Jackson, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Rutgers.
After rarely being spoken about over the past three years, Cupp has consistently been the subject of praise in August.
“He’s battled through a lot, especially in this preseason,” Bowen said of the 6-4, 308-pounder. “He’s had some small nagging stuff, no major injury or anything like that, but just to see him battle every day and come with the attitude that he does, it helps a lot, just for us because it brings up the attitude of the whole O-line.”