March 31, 1999
THE SCOOP ON HEAD COACH JOHN COOPER
Looking back on 1998 - an 11-1, Sugar Bowl championship and co-Big Ten Conference championship season for the Buckeyes - less than two quarters of football was all that separated John Cooper's 11th Ohio State team from a chance at the schools first national championship since 1968. The Buckeyes were the nations number one team for a school record-tieing 10-consecutive weeks and in November were leading dangerous Michigan State by 15 midway through the third quarter, but MSU rallied. The Buckeyes lost.
Ohio State rebounded, however, and in dominating fashion with wins over Iowa, Michigan and Texas A&M to finish the season ranked No. 2 nationally by both major polls, with at least 10 wins for the fourth consecutive season (and the fifth time in the last six years) and all the while leaving lingering thoughts that this Ohio State was the best team in the country in 1998.
Cooper, who has completed 22 seasons as a head footbal coach including 11 at Ohio State, has been down that undefeated path before and he is building as fine a collegiate coaching resume as any active coach in the business. Period. With an Ohio State record of 97-33-4, Cooper is the second-winningest coach in OSU history - behind Woody Hayes 205 victories - and he has the third-longest coaching tenure behind Hayes (28 seasons) and John W. Wilce (16).
A 1998 finalist for the Paul "Bear" Bryant Coach of the Year award and a semifinalist for the Football News Coach of the Year award, Cooper is the sixth-winningest active collegiate coach with a career mark of 179-73-6. He has now guided five straight Ohio State teams into a New Years Day bowl game and each of his last four Ohio State teams to at least 10 victories. The former is part of 10 consecutive bowl appearances for the Buckeyes under Cooper. The latter is an accomplishment that only two other current head coaches can match (Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Phillip Fulmer at Tennessee). Additionally, Cooper's Buckeyes have won 62 games the last six seasons and they are one of only five schools to win at least 40 games the last four seasons. And in the decade of the 1990s, Ohio State has an 85-23-3 record, the eighth-best record in the decade among all Division IA schools.
Regarding student-athletes, the honors, awards and accomplishments that Ohio State student-athletes have garnered under Cooper is matched by no other active coach. Consider, that under John Cooper...
Cooper's 22 collegiate teams have, traditionally, been extremely strong in conference play and a 108-34-6 all-time conference record is testament to that fact. Coopers Ohio State teams are 62-22-4 in the Big Ten Conference, including a 39-8-1 mark the last six years. His three Arizona State teams were 13-6-2 in the Pac 10 Conference and his eight Tulsa teams were 33-6.
In terms of championships, Cooper has coached nine teams to conference championships (and another five to second-place finishes), including the 1998, 1996 and 1993 Ohio State teams that shared the Big Ten title. The 1996 squad capped a brilliant 11-1 season with a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Arizona State in the Rose Bowl.
The sixth-winningest active coach in all of college football enters his 12th spring drills as head coach of the Buckeyes with a task of building another Big Ten championship-caliber team. It will be a difficult assignment because gone from last season are the talents of at least two handfuls of starters, All-Americans and soon-to-be high NFL draft picks.
But if history is any indication, Coopers 1999 Buckeyes will be a force again on the national scene and a legitimate "player" in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
Consider how Cooper and his Buckeyes have responded, rebounded and rebuilt most recently. Ohio State lost three first-round draft picks and a three-year starter and record-setting quarterback following the 1995 season, yet came back in 1996 to go 11-1 and finish No. 2 in the nation. Cooper and staff then lost eight draft picks off that 1996 team, including three more first rounders, yet coached the 1997 team, in a rebuilding year, to 10 wins and a berth in the Sugar Bowl. This past season the Buckeyes, the No. 1 team in the nation for 10-consecutive weeks, were expected to be hot and they were, rebounding from their only loss of the season with resounding wins over Iowa, Michigan and Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl to cap another 11-1 campaign with another No. 2 final ranking.
Now gone from that 1998 team are three All-Americans and nine starters, including three more sure first-round draft picks and another record-setting quarterback.
So where does that leave Ohio States fortunes for 1999?
"Ohio State University football is an established program, and one we think is among the elite in college football," Cooper emphasized, "so we are used to losing great players every year and we are used to recruiting great players to replace the ones we lose. Weve got some work to do this spring, particularly at the quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back positions, but thats football. Its time for some younger guys in the program to step up."
There are plenty of veterans to lead the way in 1999. Guys like two-time All-American and three-year starting guard Rob Murphy. And all-Big Ten Conference picks Michael Wiley, Nail Diggs, Ahmed Plummer and Ben Gilbert are among the 42 returning lettermen and the 13 returning starters. All Sports Illustrated Bowl Team pick Gary Berry returns at safety.
Among the returnees are four of the five starting offensive linemen (left tackle Tyson Walter, center Kurt Murphy and right guard Ben Gilbert have started alongside Rob Murphy for two-consecutive years). Savvy fullback Matt Keller should be seen in the starting line-up for a third-consecutive season. All four starters along the defensive line return (juniors Rodney Bailey, Joe Brown and Brent Johnson and sophomore Ryan Pickett) as do two receivers who reek with athleticism - juniors Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo. Mix in enough other talented veterans and young players and one can see reason as to why Ohio State should field another strong team in 1999.
John Cooper & Co. are looking to replace Joe Germaine, who set 11 school passing records, and his back-up, Mark Garcia, with either (or both) red-shirt sophomore Austin Moherman or true sophomore Steve Bellisari. They are the only two scholarship quarterbacks competing in spring. Together, they have a combined three series of quarterback action - all coming against Toledo last year - to their credit. An example of their lack of experience: tailback Michael Wiley has completed more passes than Moherman and Bellisari combined.
Bellisari actually played in all 12 games last season on special teams and displayed a fierce competitive drive as well as terrific athleticism. He shared the teams special teams player of the year award with fellow freshman Derek Ross, but his special teams and strong safety days are over.
Cooper is not worried by the relative inexperience of either quarterback.
"Its just a cycle that you go through every three or four years," Cooper said. "Neither Austin or Steve are established collegiate quarterbacks, but we feel that both of them can lead this team, and we feel that each will give the other great competition during spring drills. We were in much the same situation that we were in three years ago when we had to replace Bob Hoying. I think we did all right the last three years with Stan Jackson and Joe Germaine at the helm."
Last fall Sports Illustrated set out to build the perfect college football team in the 1990s, and the editors chose Ohio State University to supply the tailbacks. The Buckeyes have featured a 1,000-yard rusher in six out of the last nine years, including 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, and tailback will be a team strength in 1999 with the return of 1,235-yard rusher Michael Wiley and emerging talents Derek Combs and Jonathan Wells.
Wiley has terrific speed and terrific moves and he "makes great decisions" with the football, according to running backs coach Tim Spencer. His 1,000-yard season was accomplished with the third-fewest carries by any OSU back who has topped 1,000 yards - 198 - and he is developing a tailback toughness. His six 100-yard games included 209 yards vs. Missouri and 120 (off 12 carries) vs. Michigan. The first-team all-Big Ten selection scored 10 rushing touchdowns and he recorded 13 runs of over 20 yards, including a personal best 76-yarder vs. Toledo. He was also the teams third-leading receiver with 27 receptions for 200 yards.
Wells is a powerful runner who carried 41 times for 197 yards (4.8 average) with two touchdowns last year as a true freshman. Combs, a junior, carried 31 times for 88 yards and is, perhaps, the fastest player on the team. Junior Jerry Westbrooks also figures in the mix.
FULLBACK Coach - Tim Spencer
The Buckeyes are solid at fullback. Matt Keller carries 22 starts, 521 rushing yards and 52 receptions into his senior season. Although characterized as undersized for the typical I formation fullback, Keller, at 6-0 and nearing 240 pounds, adds powerful blocking abilities to his otherwise savvy repertoire to give Ohio State an added dimension of versatility to the position. Jamar Martin, a battering ram at 6-1 and 235 pounds, was a capable back-up as a true freshman last season who figures to be even better as a sophomore.
Good teams are characterized by strength up the middle, and Ohio State should have that strength this season with four of five starters returning along the offensive line for the second year in a row. Right guard Rob Murphy is a two-time All-American, earning first-team honors last year by the Associated Press and two years ago by the Football News. Left guard Ben Gilbert was named at the conclusion of the 1998 season by the OSU coaching staff as the teams offensive lineman of the year. Kurt Murphy has started the past two years at center and he makes all the line calls and adjustments. And Tyson Walter, the only junior among this foursome, continues to improve and impress at left tackle. That foursome has started together a combined 17 times and their average size is just under 6-5 and 297 pounds.
Any number of changes may take place this spring along the line in pursuit of a fifth starter. The left tackle position, vacated by Brooks Burris, becomes even more important a position when one considers that it would be the left-handed Bellisaris blind side, if he were in the game. The list of potential candidates to step up is long and loaded with players ready to assume a starting role. All five back-ups from last season return - LT LeCharles Bentley, LG Mike Gurr, C Drew Elford, RG Tam Hopkins and RT Henry Fleming - with Elford the only senior. All are capable of playing different positions. Ready to resume action after sitting out last season after back surgery is Jim Massey. Junior Eric Smith and true sophomore Ivan Douglas are two huge tackles who will also be in the position battle this spring.
The Buckeyes lose a good one in 6-8 John Lumpkin, but return two veteran tight ends who have plenty of plying time. Steve Wisniewski has played extensively as a blocking tight end in 36 of the teams 37 games over the last three seasons. He has caught 15 passes for 218 yards. Kevin Houser, who also long snaps for the Buckeyes, pulled tight end playing time in all 12 games this past season. Red-shirt freshman Darnell Sanders will see plenty of action in the spring as well.
An area hit hard as the Buckeyes lose the dynamic duo of split end David Boston and flanker Dee Miller, possibly the finest receiving tandem in college this past season and one of the all-time best tandems ever at Ohio State. But theres talent in the waiting.
Juniors Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo have waited for their time to fly and it has come. Germany, who also doubles as a hurdler on the track team, displayed acute pass catching skills and graceful athleticism while catching 14 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. Rambo has just three fewer career catches than Germany (15 to 12), but didnt shine like Germany in 1998 due, in part, to a sprained ankle that hobbled him throughout. Still, he came to Ohio State with the highest of high school credentials and he wouldnt be the first with such high school laurels to explode as a junior. Just ask Dee Miller. Behind those two are a handful of underclassmen - Darik Warnke, Vanness Provitt, Chad Cacchio and Tony Locke - who have virtually no big game experience.
The front four on defense will be the units foundation. All four starters return - ends Brent Johnson and Rodney Bailey and tackles Joe Brown and Ryan Pickett - as do all four backups. Johnson, Bailey and Brown are all juniors. Pickett is only a sophomore but started nine times as a true freshman.
Johnson was the surprise of the group last year, leading all linemen in tackles (40) as well as leading the team with seven quarterback sacks. Coaches voted him the teams top defensive linemen at the seasons conclusion. Bailey and Brown are 16- and 17-game start veterans and they keep improving. Both are considered play-makers. Brown played the majority of the 1998 season in pain, the result of a steel plate to help heal a broken left thumb following fall camp surgery. Pickett stepped into the starting lineup in the third game of the season and never vacated it. After a 22 tackle season, he has a bright future. There is lots of experience - and thus lots ofcompetition - among the reserves as well. Tackle Clinton Wayne has eight starts to his credit and end Matt LaVrar has 11. Physical tackle Mike Collins had the third-highest tackle total among the linemen last year - 23 - while playing in 11 games in a supporting role. He and Pickett shared the teams outstanding rookie award on the defensive side of the ball. Another OSU rookie last year, junior college transfer James Cotton, showed speed, athleticism and play-making abilities from his defensive end position. Additionally, Heath Queen and Randy Homa will keep battling for time at tackle and red-shirted freshmen Kenny Peterson and Julius Yeast will battle at end.
Gone is the All-American and Butkus Award winner Andy Katzenmoyer, a three-year starter, and savvy two-year starter Jerry Rudzinski. Finding replacements wont be easy.
The lone returning starter at linebacker is an incredible talent: junior outside linebacker Nail Diggs, a first-team All-Big Ten Conference pick as a sophomore and a legitimate All-American candidate this season. A true star on this team, Diggs was second (by one tackle) among the Buckeyes last year in tackles with 80 and he led the way with 16 tackles for losses totalling 73 yards. He also had six sacks, an interception, two pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries, one that he returned 47 yards for a touchdown. It was his first season as a linebacker after spending his first two seasons as a defensive end. The list of candidates in spring camp to replace Katzenmoyer in the middle centers around senior Chris Kirk and sophomore Jason Ott. Neither has played extensively in tight situations. Kirk has the most game action - 26 appearances the last three years - while Ott played in 11 last year as a red-shirt freshman. Both players are physically tough and both are right at 6-4 and 240 pounds.
Juniors Tim Cheatwood and Joe Cooper, two special teams veterans who arent afraid to give or receive a hit, and red-shirt sophomore Courtland Bullard top the list for playing time at outside linebacker. Cooper backed-up Rudzinski all last season with the majority of his 24 tackles coming on special teams. Hes a bit undersized, but has heart and crushes opponents with his hits. Cheatwood backed-up Diggs in 1998 and has size and athletic ability. He totalled 18 tackles. Bullard played limited minutes in two games and ended up getting a medical red-shirt season due to a painful injury near his groin. He is an outstanding athlete who can become a big-time asset at linebacker.
The good news in the secondary is that Gary Berry and Ahmed Plummer return which will help offset - somewhat - the huge losses of All-Americans Antoine Winfield and Damon Moore. Both returnees will be All-American candidates in 1999. Berry has always been known as a play-maker at free safety with six interceptions, two touchdowns - one off a blocked punt and one off an interception - and seven pass break-ups. He capped his junior season with a terrific effort in the win over Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl, totalling a career-best 12 tackles including 11 solo stops. Plummer is not only an outstanding athlete with exceptional cornerback skills, but also is a tested cornerback. A two-year starter, Plummer has 35 appearances and 25 starts to his credit plus nine pass interceptions and 25 pass break-ups. He led the team in both categories last year.
Percy King was one of the most improved defensive backs in last years spring drills, but still couldnt unseat Moore as a starter. He has plenty of experience - 27 games - with two interceptions and three blocked kicks and he should be the man to beat out at strong safety.
Nate Clements backed-up Winfield all last season as a true freshman so he would appear to have the edge at cornerback, although classmate Derek Ross, a special teams hero last year, and junior David Mitchell will be in the cornerback picture. Mitchell will also fight for playing time minutes with sophomore Greg Simpson at free safety. At strong safety, red-shirt freshmen Cie Grant and Donnie Nickey should provide great competition as well.
SPRING NOTES - - ANOTHER KICKOFF CLASSIC
CINCINNATI ON SCHEDULE
PENNY GETS MEDICAL WAIVER
STULTZ WILL MISS SPRING DRILLS
OHIO STATE FOOTBALL
40 WINS & 10+ WINS
CONSECUTIVE: 10-WIN SEASONS
1. Florida State (11-2) 12 Consecutive 2. Florida (10-2) 6 Consecutive 2. Ohio State (11-1) 4 Consecutive 3. Tennessee (13-0) 4 Consecutive
40-WIN CLUB - THE LAST FOUR YEARS
1. Nebraska 45-5 Tennessee 45-5 3. Florida 44-5 4. Florida State 43-6 5. Ohio State 43-7 6. Kansas State 41-8
28TH BIG TEN CHAMPIONSHIP
BUCKEYES - BEST OF BIG TENS BEST
BIG TENS BEST SINCE 1993
1. Ohio State 39-8-1 (.823) 3 Titles 2. Penn State 36-12 (.750) 1 Title 3. Michigan 35-13 (.729) 2 Titles
BUCKEYES: A FORCE IN THE 1990S
5-0 vs. TOP 25 TEAMS