Joel Hale sat deep in thought at his locker following Ohio State’s first team meeting in January after the Orange Bowl loss.
He started 11 games at nose guard last season, but he thought he could make a bigger contribution in his senior year if he acted on what he’d been contemplating.
So Hale walked into coach Urban Meyer’s office and made an offer that few players would even consider in the final year of their college career: He asked to change sides of the ball and become an offensive lineman.
“God has a plan for me,” Hale explained after practice on Saturday. “I felt it in my heart and my mind. I was walking out the door with my stuff from my locker — last year’s stuff — when I set down the bag, turned around and went to talk to him.”
Meyer was enthusiastic about the move. In fact, Hale said, Meyer had broached the subject two years ago. At the time, Hale saw a better opportunity to contribute if he remained on defense.
But now the Buckeyes have a deep, talented defensive line and an inexperienced offensive line, and Hale didn’t think he helped the team as much as he wanted late in the 2013 season.
“I’m not saying I couldn’t have competed (on defense),” Hale said. “I just feel that my talent and my leadership could be used on the offensive side of the ball. I’m trying to provide some juice over there and help us win.”
That word — juice — was the word offensive line coach Ed Warinner used in reference to Hale early in spring practice. Hale has an outgoing personality and prides himself on being a leader.
“Joel can help us,” Warinner said. “He gives us a veteran guy that’s tough, that works hard. He’s an energy guy.”
Hale is competing with Antonio Underwood for the left guard spot filled the past three years by Andrew Norwell.
The switch from defensive line to offense is not unprecedented. Current offensive linemen Darryl Baldwin and Billy Price began their OSU careers on defense. But they made the transition earlier in their careers, and the change is not easy. Offensive linemen must work as a unit, with precise fundamentals and discipline. One misplaced step can ruin a play.
“I’ve got to stop making small mental mistakes, because I feel that’s what holds me back the most, along with some technique stuff,” Hale said. “But I’m battling for the spot, and that’s what this sport is about.”
Many linemen played on both sides of the ball in high school. Hale said he played only sparingly on offense at Center Grove (Ind.).
As is typical for an inexperienced lineman, Hale’s run blocking is ahead of his pass protection, Warinner said. And he doesn’t question whether Hale is making the move too late in his career.
“Absolutely not, unless you thought it was too late for Reid Fragel,” said Warinner, referring to the converted tight end’s successful transition to right tackle as a senior in 2012. “We’re OK. We’ll get him ready.”
No matter what happens, Hale said he will not regret the position switch. Even if he doesn’t become a starter, he hopes the message he is sending resonates with his teammates.
“I’ve always been a team player,” he said. “Last year, I didn’t mind taking on double-teams so (linebacker) Ryan (Shazier) could make (nine) tackles against Wisconsin. I’m here to benefit the team as much as I can, to help us win as many games as we can.”