Big Ten Football Previews – Part IX
Editor's Note: This is the ninth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...
Team: Ohio State Buckeyes
Tidbits … Ohio State has won an astounding 31 league crowns since starting play in the Big Ten in 1913. 16 of those titles have been outright. From 1968 to 1979, the scarlet and gray won at least a share of the title every single year – except 1971. The Buckeyes have won 62 games in six seasons under Jim Tressel – an average of 10.3 wins per year.
2006 Prediction/actual: 11-1, 7-1 (T-1st), BCS / 12-1, 8-0 (1st), BCS Title Game
2005 Prediction / actual: 8-3, 6-2 (T-1st), Capital One / 10-2, 7-1 (T-1st), Fiesta
2004 Prediction / actual: 10-1, 7-1 (T-1st), Rose / 8-4, 4-4 (T-5th), Alamo
2003 Prediction / actual: 11-1, 7-1 (1st) / 11-2, 6-2 (T-2nd)
2002 Prediction / actual: 11-2, 6-2 (T-1st) / 14-0, 8-0 (T-1st), National Champs
2001 Prediction / actual: 7-4, 4-4 (T-5th) / 7-5, 5-3 (3rd)
Returning Starters: 4 offense, 5 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: LT Alex Boone, OG Steve Rehring, RT Kirk Barton, DE Vernon Gholston, LB Marcus Freeman, LB James Laurinaitis, CB Malcolm Jenkins, PK Aaron Pettrey, P A.J. Trappaso
Key Losses: QB Troy Smith, WR Ted Ginn, WR Anthony Gonzalez, RB Antonio Pittman, C Doug Datish, OG T.J. Downing, DT Quinn Pitcock, DT David Patterson, CB Antonio Smith, SS Brandon Mitchell
Looking Back ... The 2006 campaign was all it was cracked up to be… well, almost anyway. A stunning, blow-out loss in the national title game was the only blip on the radar for the Buckeyes last season. That result just goes to show you why games are played on the field and not on paper. As tough as it was to swallow that bitter pill, one has to assume that the 1 v. 2 win over arch-rival Michigan and the otherwise unblemished run to the title game were worth the pain of the eventual last game debacle
Ohio State truly did all that was expected of them through the 2006 regular season. Big wins in big games (at Texas and Iowa and home versus Penn State and Michigan). Huge margins of victory almost everywhere that it was expected. A defense that was among the best in the land, at least until the last two games of the season. An offense that produced a Heisman Trophy winner and some first round NFL talent. The national championship loss left some hearts broken, but firmly cemented Jim Tressel and the Ohio State football program as a legit year-in and year-out contender in college football.
Outlook - Offense ... Until the power outage in the title game last January, the OSU offense was a potent, efficient machine. The lowest offensive output of the regular season was 17 points in a dud on the in Illinois. The Buckeyes led the Big Ten in scoring offense (34.6 ppg) and were second in total offense (384.5 ypg). The distribution of the ball was fantastic, with Ginn and Gonzalez combining for 1515 yards receiving and 17 scores and Pittman churning out 1233 yards and 14 touchdowns. Troy Smith was nearly flawless in leading the attack all season long. So, this entire recap begs an enormous question – who the heck is going to fill the gapping holes left by graduation and early departures? Can Ohio State truly reload or do the Buckeyes need to pull it close to the vest and rebuild a little bit first? Can OSU replace seven starters and not skip a beat? Stay tuned…
Ohio State is one of the many around the league faced with replacing its quarterback - and folks, Troy Smith wasn’t just any quarterback. The shifty Heisman winner had a load of weapons in is cache but was truly the heart and soul of the Buckeye attack. Too boot, back-up QB Justin Zwick has also departed, leaving OSU with very little in the experience department. The returnee with the most appreciable experience is fourth-year junior Todd Boeckman. Boeckman has earned the starting nod and will get a chance to put all the time he has into the program to game-time use. He doesn’t need to be a Troy Smith clone – and he won’t be one. He has much more size, a great arm and for his size possesses excellent mobility. All he has to do is run the offense smoothly and efficiently and limit the mistakes. Do that, and the OSU offense should be fine.
If Boeckman falters the next in line to get a shot is sophomore Robbie Schoenhoft. It might not seem fathomable that there is a bigger QB than Boeckman (6-5, 235) on the roster, but Schoenhoft fits that bill. At 6-6, 240, Schoenhoft has tremendous size and an NFL-caliber arm, if not the mobility or experience in the system. Still, he has taken a few game snaps and means that there is little fall off from the starter to the bench in case of injury. The wild card in the mix might be redshirt freshman Antonio Henton. Henton doesn’t have quite the arm of the other two but is an explosive runner and a true dual threat. Look for him to get some time when the flow of a game allows for it as he is more than likely the longer term future for the Buckeyes at quarterback. In any case, look for the offense to play it a little closer to the vest early in the season as Boeckman, Schoenhoft and Henton (sounds like an insurance agency) adjust to their much more prominent roles in the Ohio State offense. Once the trio becomes well-adjusted, look for a solid, if also somewhat predictable offensive attack from Jim Bollman and staff. The goal will be to play mistake free and take what comes, probably more so than the past few seasons.
The loss of a leader and player the caliber of Smith might not hurt as much if the Buckeyes were not also replacing a two-year 1,000 yard-plus rusher in Antonio Pittman. Pittman left a year early for the NFL and while his departure might mean a slower start to the running game early, it will be more than fine as the season moves along. Why? Three words: Chris “Beanie” Wells. The big sophomore with breakaway speed tallied a solid 576 yards and seven scores last year in a back-up role and is poised to be the next great OSU tailback. Beyond Wells is another Wells – Maurice. Mo Wells was rumored to be this close to transferring but stuck it out and will see plenty of carries as a smaller, change of pace type back. He wasn’t eye-popping as a sophomore after a nice freshman campaign, but he will get his shot. That is, unless (or more likely until) freshman Brando Saine gets comfortable with the offense at this level. Saine was Mr. Football in Ohio last season and is lightning fast, with a world of potential. Beanie Wells might be able to match Pittman’s output himself, but even if he doesn’t, don’t fret. This trio should easily help the Buckeye backfield rush for 2,000 yards this fall.
The most unheralded position on any offense is the fullback. Don’t think for a second that any of the great OSU tailbacks would forget his fullback in a Heisman acceptance speech. Dionte Johnson has been patiently bidding his time the past few years as Stan White, Jr. ruled the roost. Now it is the senior’s turn. The son of former Ohio State and New York Giants great Pepper Johnson, Dionte won’t get many (if any) carries but he is a bruising blocker. His backups are Trevor Robinson and Brandon Smith. Write these names down. Not because they will be stars in the stats column, but because they will be players to watch as the Wells, Wells and Saine break big plays all season long.
Keeping with the theme of replacing NFL talent, the wide receiving corps will undergo a transformation this fall as well. Three have departed, most notably the game-breaking speed demon Ted Ginn, Jr. and the soft, glue-sticky handed, tough Anthony Gonzalez. The pair leaves a 110-catch, 1515-yard, 17 touchdown void in the passing game. Never fear, however, because perennial contenders reload and man do the Buckeyes have the talent to do just that.
The running game has the Wells’ the passing game has the Brian’s. As in Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline. The duo hauled in 46 catches for 639 yards and seven TDs last fall and will step in and try to provide the same clutch play and game-changing effort as Ginn and Gonzalez. Robiskie has good size (6-3, 195), soft hands, good speed and an attitude and work ethic that coaches drool over. Hartline has the same height, if a little less meat on his bones and tremendous speed. He’ll be an impact player as well. Ray Small is a flier on the outside and could play a huge role in stretching the defense this fall. He might not have the jaw-dropping, eye-popping speed and skill of Ginn, but the sophomore will get his chance. After this trio, the depth chart is a little up in the air, that is aside from Albert Dukes and Devon Lyons. Both have been in the program but have yet to break into the playing group. That should change this fall as Dukes is tough and fast and Lyons has the size, speed and athleticism to be a standout. A newcomer to keep a close eye on is Taurian Washington.
As with the quarterback and tailback position, the key is for the experienced receivers to step it up a notch and for the depth chart to produce like the new starters did as backups last season. There is no question that OSU has talent, size and speed all over the place but the overall corps might be a little light on depth, which will need to be addressed once fall practice ensues. What helps the aerial attack is the return of tight end Rory Nichol. Nichol was under-utilized last season, understandably so when you consider all of the weapons that the Buckeyes had on offense. He could be a nice safety valve for Boeckman, especially early in the season. He is a proven, reliable receiver and a nice blocker as well. His ability to provide match-up problems is also a nice ace to have in the hole. 6-7, 255-pound sophomore Jake Ballard will see plenty of PT this fall as well. He has great size and hands and he turned heads in spring ball with his ability to snare passes and put on knockout blocks. A third name to keep watch for is Andy Miller. This is how it goes with the likes of Ohio State. You start out wondering how in the heck they will replace the talent that is gone and after a few paragraphs, you’re convinced they might not. Time will tell, but even with key members of the receiving corps gone, the scarlet and gray should have a very productive season with what is left in the cupboard.
Ohio State’s strength coming into the season is the experience of the offensive line. True, two solid starters have departed but both tackles return as does the left guard. Juniors Alex Boone (LT) and Steve Rehring (LG) anchor the all-important left side of the line. While maybe not the best left-side tandem in the Big Ten, the pair is close. Both are 6-8 and run over 320 pounds. Boone is considered by some the best offensive line prospect (for the next level) since Orlando Pace Rehring has great quickness for his size and is versatile enough to play inside or outside. He too has NFL written all over him. The other returning starter is right tackle Kirk Barton. At 6-6, 310, the senior is just a touch smaller than his left side counterparts and every bit the pass blocker. While not thought to have as much next-level potential, he gives the Buckeyes tremendous balance up front.
The return of this top trio should make the transition at center and right guard a smooth one. Sophomore Jim Cordle is a rising star and replaces Doug Datish at center. What he lacks in size (6-4, 285) he more than makes up for in speed. As he settles in and gets a rhythm with his quarterback, this line will be that much better. Filling out the starting lineup is junior right guard Ben Person. Person was a solid, two-year backup to T.J. Dowling and he knows the position well. He should jump right in and provide consistency from day one. The key will be to continue to develop the depth that has made OSU so great along the front line the past several years. Every year someone gets dinged up and a young player defies the unwritten rule that it takes linemen the longest to adjust to the college game. Said players this year are Connor Smith and Bryant Browning. The second string also has some players with experience in the mix. Juniors Kyle Mitchum and Joe Skinner bring versatility and skill to the guard and tackle positions respectively. Skinner in particular is a lineman with a boatload of potential, as of yet untapped. If this pair can spell the starters effectively, the Ohio State line should be among the best in the conference and Coach Bollman can release the hounds.
I can honestly say that I would very rarely - if ever – put as much faith in an offense faced with replacing every key skill player from a near national championship season as I am the OSU offense. The sky is the limit with this group. I will not predict the same sustained, pounding efforts from last season, but I will say that after a few weeks, we could possibly be ending any speculation on who will step up or how the offense will look after undergoing such an overhaul. The success of the offensive attack will be predicated on early growth and consistency. Get things done in a mistake free manner when the getting is good (first four of five games) and by the time the big games roll around, we could be looking at a well-oiled machine.
Outlook - Defense ... Eleven games into the 2006 season, the Ohio State defense was as nasty, stingy and unbeatable as a defensive coordinator could dream. The Buckeyes had given up a maximum of 17 points (at Iowa) and a total, TOTAL of 69 points in the other ten games combined. Then something broke. A wheel fell off. Michigan exposed the scarlet and gray defense for 39 points in a wildly celebrated, highly memorable 1 vs. 2 showdown. Some thought, okay, that was a blip on the radar. Not so much. Florida proceeded to put up 41 in the national title game and suddenly the defense that had given up 86 points in 11 games (7.8 ppg) saw that total nearly double in two contests. The goal this season will be to field the same sort of defense that made it an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses in the first eleven battles last season. Do that, and this team will turn heads on a national scale yet again…
The biggest task the defense is faced with this season is replacing three rock solid starters in the front four. Pitcock, Patterson and Richardson have moved on, leaving some sizeable shoes to fill. The good news is that defensive end Vernon Gholston is back. Gholston was an extraordinary playmaker last fall, tallying 49 tackles, 8.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. He anchors a line that is very much in the position to reload and not rebuild.
Why can it reload when so many others that lose as much must build from scratch? Four names: Wilson, Rose, Denlinger and Worthington. Lawrence Wilson is a junior end with tackle-type size. He’s been waiting for his turn to step in and turn heads and now he will get his chance. If Wilson should falter, Robert Rose, a big, fast, powerful sophomore will be there to pick up the slack. Rose made noise as a freshman and will see plenty of time on the field this fall. Doug Worthington is a 6-7, 275 former defensive end with tremendous quickness. He needs to bolster his run defense and stay healthy, but he will do some nice things on the inside this fall. Todd Denlinger is a true tackle at 6-2, 280. He showed excellent promise last season and should step right up to the plate and knock it out of the park.
The rest of the depth chart is strong as well. Alex Barrow is fast and big and will spell Gholston at end. Nader Abdallah is a space-eating junior that needs to be more consistent to see the field frequently come fall. Dexter Larimore and Ryan Williams round out the main group of players who will work for playing time. Like I said, the great programs simply reload and Ohio State has done just that where it needed to the most. There is an established playmaker in Gholston, loads of talent in Wilson, Rose, Denlinger, Worthington, Barrow and Abdallah and all signs point to another stellar season from the Buckeyes front four.
What will continue to make the OSU defense one of the more feared units in the land is the caliber of linebackers that take the field each and every game. Most consider Penn State to be Linebacker U, but Ohio State has a pretty solid argument that it produces equally as many standouts at the position. It seems like every year, the Buckeyes cart out three LBs who possess NFL size, speed and talent. The Bucknuts lose one starter (John Kerr) but have more than enough horses in the stable to replace him. It all starts with James Laurinaitis who seemingly came from nowhere last season to contend for all the top postseason honors that are bestowed upon the very best linebackers in the land. The junior registered 115 tackles, four sacks and a team high five interceptions a year ago and should only be better. Imagine that, or for opponents - fear that!
It doesn’t stop with Laurinaitis. Marcus Freeman is a big, fast junior linebacker with unbelievable potential. He bounced back nicely last season from a knee injury that shelved him in 2005 and is poised to be an even bigger factor this fall. Former JUCO superstar Larry Grant moves from a backup role to the starting lineup and reminds me of another stellar JUCO linebacker that played in the Big Ten and now in the NFL – Julian Peterson. He is a freakish talent with size, strength and speed that has to have NFL scouts drooling. Two of the other top subs from last year return in Curtis Terry and Ross Homan. Terry has experience (senior), nice size and great speed. He can play the outside almost like a big safety. Homan saw significant time as a true freshman a year ago and will again provide solid backup play on the outside. Austin Spitler and Thaddeus Gibson round out an absolutely fabulous playing group. Eat your heart out Penn State. You have some studs in the middle of your defense too, but all the way around, this is probably the best of the best.
Ohio State must replace two starters in the secondary this fall, but remember, we all wondered how they’d replace the four starters they lost after the 2005 campaign too. Um, well, they fared okay. The scarlet and gray pass defense ranked third in the Big Ten last year and hauled in an astounding 21 picks. While Brandon Mitchell was a big part of that at safety, the return of starting corner Malcolm Jenkins and strong safety Jamario O’Neal will balance out Mitchell’s departure. Jenkins is a bona fide NFL cornerback. With great cover skills, solid tackling ability and things you can’t teach – like size, football IQ and speed, Jenkins should be a star this fall. He will likely be flanked by sophomore Donald Washington, who got eight starts last season (when OSU started in the nickel package). He too has size, speed, smarts and playmaking ability. O’Neal isn’t flashy nor is he always as consistent as you’d like but he is a big hitter with experience. He tends to gamble at times but is great in run and support a he provides leadership and pop to the lineup. In an ideal situation, O’Neal would roam around more as a free safety. That could come to fruition if Anderson Russell, the SS starter at the onset of last season comes back from injury better than before. In the meantime, Kurt Coleman will try to fill the shoes of the departed Mitchell.
As with the rest of the lineup, the beauty of the secondary is the bounty of talented options in the backup slots. Aaron Grant, Nick Patterson, Grant Schwartz and Tyler Moeller are all in the mix at safety. Moeller might be the one to watch as he transitions from linebacker. He is a potential show stopper and one heckuva hitter. At corner there is just as much talented depth. Led by the lightning fast Chimdi Chekwa and returning lettermen Andre Amos and Brandon Underwood, OSU is stacked with cover corners as well. The only overall concern might be the continuity early in the season. There is ample talent – obviously – but it needs to gel with two new starters breaking in. I fully expect that to happen sooner than later and for the Buckeyes to match last year’s eye-popping statistical output.
Every year, Ohio State loses top notch talent to the NFL and every year a new guy steps up his role from the previous season or comes from nowhere to become the next star. No wonder the Buckeyes are a perennial contender nationally. The defensive front needs the most seasoning, followed by the secondary, but the early slate more than allows for that to happen. Expect great things from this group as a whole including some major improvements over the 40 points per game they allowed while going Swiss cheese D against Michigan and Florida. Defense wins games in the Big Ten and with the offense needing more time to build, look for this defense to carry the load early and often.
Outlook - Special Teams ... Ohio State is in great shape in the all-important kicking game. The Bucks have quietly fielded some fantastic punters and place-kickers over the past several years and 2007 is no different. Punter A.J. Trapasso returns and has a solid, accurate leg. He is a huge asset in the field position game. Aaron Pettrey won a battle that went to the wire before the 06 campaign and after a rough start, came through nicely. He will only get better with a strong, accurate leg. The return game takes a hit with the departure of Ted Ginn, but Ray Small has some special abilities as well and may help ease that pain.
9/1 – YOUNGSTOWN STATE
9/8 – AKRON
9/15 – at Washington
9/22 – NORTHWESTERN
9/29 – at Minnesota
10/6 – at Purdue
10/13 – KENT STATE
10/20 – MICHIGAN STATE
10/27 – at Penn State
11/3 – WISCONSIN
11/10 – ILLINOIS
11/17 – at Michigan
Key Games: 9/22 – at Washington, 10/27 – at Penn State, 11/3 – Wisconsin, 11/17 – at Michigan
Prediction ... Ohio State should roll at home most of the season. The only tough battle in the ‘shoe is Wisconsin. The non conference slate is decent at a glance. Akron and Kent State are two of the better teams in the MAC East and Washington will be a nice early season road test. The Buckeyes skip Iowa and Indiana this year, two teams that should be decent. The key stretch will be the trip to Penn State followed by the visit from Wisconsin. The Michigan game might not get the hype of last year’s battle, but you bet the Wolverines will be hungry for payback for the way OSU has owned them of late.
B10: 6-2 (losses at Penn State and Michigan)
Overall: 10-2, 3rd in the conference, Capital One Bowl berth