COLUMBUS, Ohio — It’s easy to be the face of a football team when everything’s going well, when the offense is working like a well-oiled machine and a winning streak is well intact. When expectations are being met, the limelight is inviting.
But what about when a team’s journey takes a detour? An unexpected loss leading to tougher questions, stronger criticism and unwanted attention that’s less fun for an 18- to 22-year-old to experience.
When times are tough, being front and center of a college football program isn’t quite as easy, which is why the way Billy Price handled Ohio State’s 24-21 loss to Penn State last weekend so strongly stood out.
The first of his teammates — by a good 15 minutes — to meet with the media on Monday, the Buckeyes guard attempted to put Ohio State’s heartbreaking loss into perspective. In doing so, his maturity shined through, as did the leadership the Buckeyes now need as they take on the final five weeks of the regular season with no room for error in their bid for a spot in the College Football Playoff starting with this weekend’s matchup against Northwestern.
“We’ve only lost five games in five years,” Price said, reflecting on Urban Meyer’s 56-5 career record in Columbus. “We sit here and the world is ending and the sun came up and it’s incredible. It’s just like, ‘wow.’ We’re very blessed to be at a university such as Ohio State where we only lose five games in five years. Let’s take advantage of that. That’s incredible, especially as you sit here and you look at all the history around the building. Woody Hayes, Paul Brown, all these people and now we’re worried here like, ‘The world is over, the sky is falling.’
“We’ve been here before. This isn’t an occurrence that happens often, but we grow from this, we get tighter together and we focus in on us. We don’t worry about everybody else and the fans and this, that and the other, because everybody’s a couch coach. Everybody thinks they have the whistle. But we need to focus in on who we are, the guys in that room, and that’s what matters to us.”
Price was just getting warmed up, reiterating his points and sticking up for his offensive line unit, which has struggled in recent weeks.
How did a player at an unglamorous position like guard suddenly become the emerging voice of the Ohio State offense? It sure seems unlikely.
After all, when he first arrived in Columbus, Price wasn’t even sure what side of the ball he’d be playing on.
Price was a key part of what is arguably the greatest Ohio State recruiting class ever assembled, Meyer’s 2013 haul. A 4-star prospect from Austintown (Ohio) Fitch near Youngstown, Price was the state of Ohio’s 11th-ranked player, a top-300 national prospect and the No. 18 player at his position: defensive tackle.
Accordingly, he was recruited by then-Buckeyes defensive line coach Mike Vrabel, who swayed him to come to Columbus over the likes of Arizona, Michigan, Michigan State, Tennessee, Nebraska, Notre Dame, UCLA and Pitt.
The one potential drawback to Ohio State? Replicating his blueprint from Florida, Meyer was already in the midst of stockpiling his roster with blue-chip defensive linemen. So if Price was going to get on the field sooner rather than later, a position switch was likely — not that it came as a total surprise.
“He was a dual guy in high school,” Meyer recalled earlier this week. “We did have conversations even before he got here about what position he’d play.”
Initially, Price did give the defensive line a shot, but less than three weeks into his first fall camp he found himself on the other side of the ball. With the Buckeyes only getting richer on defense with each passing recruiting class and the interior O-line still lacking, the writing was on the wall.
“He kind of figured out offense was his best opportunity,” Meyer said. “He was very involved in that decision.”
Having first arrived at Ohio State weighing 299 pounds and still learning the offense’s playbook, Price took a redshirt season in his first year on campus. Although he wasn’t yet starring on the field, Price was already producing off of it, taking the mantle from former Buckeyes player and fellow Youngstown native John Simon as the strongest player in the Ohio State weight room.
“It’s not even close,” Buckeyes strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti said. “You can ask any player, he’s a whole other level, strength-wise.”
It didn’t take long for Price’s year away from game action to pay dividends. At the start of Ohio State’s 2014 season, Price — now up to 305 pounds — was named the successor to Andrew Norwell as the starter at left guard, beating out fellow converted defensive lineman Joel Hale.
Like many first-time starters, Price took his lumps early. In a Week 2 loss against Virginia Tech, he looked especially spotty, playing his part on a Buckeyes offensive line that surrendered seven sacks to the Hokies.
By season’s end, however, Price had begun to hit his groove. He even delivered a pair of rare offensive lineman highlights.
First on a J.T. Barrett touchdown in an overtime victory against Penn State.
And then handing out the lead block on Ezekiel Elliott’s 85-yard touchdown run in the College Football Playoff semifinal Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
At year’s end, Price was not just a starter on the inaugural College Football Playoff national champion, but a freshman All-American, according to Phil Steele.
From there, his development would only accelerate.
In 2015, he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the conference coaches as the Buckeyes tallied a 12-1 record. Just two weeks ago, he made Sports Illustrated‘s midseason All-American list, thanks to his role in an OSU offense that ranks eighth nationally in rushing and 27th in sacks allowed.
Price has admittedly had issues with penalties at times, be it false starts or the occasional hold. But that comes with the territory of playing with the instincts one would expect from a once-promising defensive lineman.
“Going against Billy is a war. It’s a battle,” said Buckeyes defensive end Tyquan Lewis. “The aggressiveness is there. I think all of our O-linemen are aggressive, but with Billy, you can tell he once played defense. You can just tell.”
While 2016 seems to be the season Price has hit his stride on the field, it also marks the year he has made his mark off of it.
It was just two years ago that Price was a first-time starter on the Buckeyes offensive line that struggled in a defeat to Virginia Tech. So perhaps that’s why the now-fourth-year junior took exception to the criticism that right tackle Isaiah Prince received in the wake of a performance against Penn State that saw the Ohio State O-line surrender six sacks to the Nittany Lions.
“I’d go to war for him right now,” Price said on Monday. “I’m not going to sit here and allow somebody to nitpick him. He and I, we’re going to get better. There’s not a doubt about it.”
Just two months earlier, Price had been named one of seven captains on this year’s Buckeyes squad — hardly a shock considering he was just one of six returning starters from last year’s team. But while Price was proud to have such honor bestowed upon him, he also made sure to let anyone who would listen know that when it came to the OSU offensive line, it was senior center Pat Elflein’s unit.
But with Elflein out with an injury in the weeks leading up to the Buckeyes’ season opener, Price’s role as one Ohio State’s leaders was only enhanced.
“He has kind of taken that role when I’m not in there,” Elflein said of Price in August.
Somewhere along the way, he continued to develop his voice, which so often shows through on his Twitter account, @b_price54, where he routinely posts inspirational quotes, along with a wide-ranging music taste that includes the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Eminem, Brad Paisley and Drake.
In the midst of the national anthem protests that became widespread across football at the start of this season, Price picked up a sweatshirt from the Wounded Warrior Project as a “reminder of what this is all about.”
“He’s exceptional. He’s a very good player and an even better person,” Meyer said of Price earlier this week. “He’s been around here for a while. He understands our culture and what we expect. He’s outstanding.”
With not only the Buckeyes’ offensive line but the entire team at a crossroads for the season, Ohio State now needs Billy Price the leader just as much as it does Billy Price the player.
If his Monday media session was any indication, Price appears more than up for the challenge.
“I want to put the ball on the offensive line and put the game on the offensive line,” said Price. “We’re an offensive line-driven team. That makes sure everybody has confidence in us.”