April 6, 2007
Jim Tressel might want to consider hanging a vacancy sign outside the Woody Hayes Athletics Center. The veteran Ohio State football coach has 12 rooms for rent following the 2006 season in which the Buckeyes posted a 12-1 record, won the outright Big Ten championship and finished second in the national polls.
The Buckeyes spent the first 12 weeks of last fall in the No. 1 spot in the polls and twice defeated No. 2 teams (Michigan and Texas). They averaged 34.6 points and 384.5 yards per game on offense and allowed 12.8 points and 280.5 yards on defense.
Few teams in the history of Ohio State football have generated as much excitement. But graduation and the early departure of three juniors for the National Football League have left six holes on each side of the ball - 12 vacancies if you will.
The list of players who will not be returning includes All-Americans Troy Smith at quarterback and Quinn Pitcock at defensive tackle. Smith, last year's Heisman Trophy recipient and one of the most celebrated players in Ohio State annals, was 25-3 as a starter under Tressel. Smith's many accomplishments include a 3-0 record against Michigan.
Also gone are Smith's two leading receivers, Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, who combined for 110 receptions and 17 touchdown catches; and leading rusher Antonio Pittman, who finished the year with 1233 yards and 14 of the Buckeyes' 25 rushing touchdowns. All three were juniors. From now on they will be playing their games on Sundays.
Up front the Buckeyes must replace center Doug Datish and guard T. J. Downing, both first-team All-Big Ten selections in 2006.
Defensively, the Buckeyes lose three-fourths of their defensive front, including David Patterson, who teamed with Pitcock to give the Buckeyes one of the top tackle tandems in the country.
But while the losses are significant on both sides of the ball, the Buckeye do return a total of 38 lettermen - 18 on offense and 20 on defense and the majority of those players have logged quality minutes in Tressel's revolving door system that rewards younger players with game experience.
The offense returns split end Brian Robiskie, mammoth tackles Kirk Barton (6-6, 310) and Alex Boone (6-8, 325), guard Steve Rehring (6-8, 329) and tight end Rory Nicol (6-5, 250).
Robiskie had 29 receptions for 383 yards and five touchdowns last year in his first season as a starter and is now the team's leading returning receiver.
Barton won All-Big Ten honors at right tackle and should be an All-America candidate this year. Boone was a solid fixture at left tackle as was Rehring at left guard. Nicol, who missed the 2005 season with a foot injury, is coming off a productive season and has the potential to be n excellent tight end. That group gives offensive coordinator Jim Bollman a strong nucleus up front.
The list of defensive returnees starts with junior All-America linebacker James Laurinaitis, last year's winner of the Bronko Nagurski Award as the top defensive player in the country. Laurinaitis led the Buckeyes in tackles with 115 total participations. He also had a team-best five interceptions.
Marcus Freeman also returns at linebacker. Freeman, the fastest of the Buckeye linebackers, had 71 tackles last year, second only to Laurinaitis. Freeman sat out the 2005 season with a knee injury and was rusty in the early going last year. But down the stretch, he was one of the Buckeyes' most dependable players.
Junior defensive end Vernon Gholston is the lone holdover up front. Gholston had a monster year in 2006, recording team highs in both tackles-for-loss (15.0) and sacks (8.5) and was in on 49 tackles, tops among OSU's defensive linemen.
Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, a first-team All-Big Ten pick last year, and safety Jamario O'Neal return to anchor the secondary. Jenkins, with 19 career starts and 22 games under his belt, is the Buckeyes' most experienced defender. O'Neal is a talented athlete who moved into the starting lineup in week five of the season as a replacement for injured Anderson Russell.
In the kicking department, the Buckeyes return punter A. J. Trapasso and place-kicker Aaron Pettrey, but must replace veteran long snapper Drew Norman.
Trapasso will be in his third year as a starter. He averaged 40.6 yards per punt last year. Pettrey, a former walk-on, closed out the season by making eight of his last nine field goal attempts, including two from beyond the 50-yard mark.
Quarterback - Junior Todd Boeckman, sophomore Robbie Schoenhoft and redshirt freshman Antonio Henton are the three candidates to succeed Smith, whose numbers last year included 2,542 passing yards and a school-record 30 touchdown passes. All three have strong arms and are athletic. Boeckman has been in the program four years and knows the system. He appeared in three games last year and Schoenhoft in two. They completed a combined three of four passes in very limited action. Henton played with the scout team last year. Mental toughness and the ability to take care of the ball will be key factors in finding a successor to Smith.
Tailback - Sophomore Chris "Beanie" Wells and junior Maurice "Mo" Wells, no relation to one another, hope to fill the void left by the early departure of Pittman, who put together back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons in his last two years with the Buckeyes. Beanie Wells is 6-2 and 230 and a powerful inside runner with breakaway speed. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry last season and scored seven touchdowns as the Buckeyes' short-yardage back. He finished the season with 576 yards on 104 carries. Mo Wells added 171 yards and a touchdown on 46 carries, an average of 3.7 yards per carry for the elusive scatback. He has great quickness and speed.
Fullback - Dionte Johnson is expected to take over for graduated Stan White Jr. Johnson, the son of former Ohio State All-American Pepper Johnson, has understudied White the past two years and is a bruising blocker. Trever Robinson and Brandon Smith are the backups.
Wide Receiver - As significant as the losses of Ginn, Gonzalez and Roy Hall are, the Buckeye coaching staff believes it has three excellent receivers in Robiskie, Brian Hartline and Ray Small. Hartline had 17 receptions last year as a redshirt freshman and like Robiskie has excellent speed. Small played sparingly as a freshman last year and had eight catches in 10 games. He is one of the fastest players on the team and has a chance to be a real impact player. Devon Lyons and Albert Dukes are the fourth and fifth receivers. Developing depth here will be a point of emphasis in the spring.
Offensive Line - Barton and Boone are set at the right and left tackle positions, respectively, as is Rehring at left guard. Sophomore Jim Cordle is the heir apparent at center, while Ben Person is a leading candidate at right guard. Jon Skinner and Kyle Mitchum are veteran players who will vie for playing time and Connor Smith and Bryant Browning are two young players who will bear watching.
Tight End - Nicol had 13 catches for 151 yards and three touchdowns last year and improved with each game. He should only get better as a result of this year's spring practice. Jake Ballard, who played in 12 games last season as a true freshman (two catches including a diving touchdown catch against Indiana), provides outstanding depth. Andy Miller, who was redshirted last year as a freshman, is another talented player. Both of the latter are excellent targets.
Defensive Line - Gholston is the lone returning starter up front, but he is not the only experienced player that defensive coordinator and line coach Jim Heacock can call upon. Junior Lawrence Wilson played in 11 games last year at end and recorded 14 tackles, 5 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks. And Robert Rose whetted the coaches' appetites last fall, appearing in 10 games and recording 3.5 sacks in limited playing time. Either or both could have a breakout year in 2007.
Todd Denlinger and Doug Worthington head up the list of candidates at tackle. Denlinger played in 11 games last year behind Pitcock. Worthington appeared in seven games at end, but will move inside in the spring. Redshirt freshman Dexter Larimore is a tough, physical player who will compete for playing time. Veterans Nader Abdallah and Alex Barrow also return as does Ryan Williams who hopes to finally stay healthy after suffering a serious knee injury at the end of the 2005 campaign.
Linebacker - In Laurinaitis and Freeman, the Buckeyes have two standouts. Laurinaits will again be in the hunt for All-America honors. In addition to winning the Nagurski Award, he also was a finalist for the Butkus Award in 2006. One of the most pleasant surprises of the 2006 season, he is one of those players that seems to have a knack for making plays. Additionally, top subs Larry Grant, Curtis Terry and Ross Homan return. Grant is a former junior college All-American who transferred to Ohio State last spring and played in 12 games last fall. Homan enrolled early last year and had 28 tackles as a true freshman. Terry has played in 37 games the past three years, but last year was easily his best showing to date. Like Freeman, he has outstanding speed. Junior Austin Spitler and redshirt freshman Thaddeus Gibson also are in the mix.
Defensive Backfield - Jenkins, 55 tackles and four interceptions in 2006, will be a Thorpe Award and All-America candidate. He is a gifted cover corner who can do it all. Donald Washington, who started eight games when the Buckeyes were in a nickel package, is the likely starter at the other corner spot. His numbers last year included 41 tackles and an interception. Lettermen Andre Amos and Brandon Underwood and redshirt freshman Chimdi Chekwa also return at corner. Chekwa has blistering speed. O'Neal returns at strong safety, while Nick Patterson is expected to step in at free safety after backing up Brandon Mitchell a year ago. Depth will come from Andre Amos, Kurt Coleman and Aaron Gant, all of whom played last year, and a pair of redshirt freshmen, Grant Schwartz and Tyler Moeller. The hard-hitting Moeller moves over from linebacker. He was show stopper on more than one occasion last fall and the coaches are hopeful he will make a smooth transition to safety. Anderson Russell the starter at strong safety until suffering a knee injury at Iowa, will sit out the spring but is expected to return in the fall, giving the Buckeyes excellent depth at every position on the back end.
Punting - Trapasso has been a reliable weapon the past two years and should be a candidate for the Ray Guy Award this year. He has demonstrated a tendency to be at his best in big games. Jon Thoma is a capable backup.
Place-Kicking - Last year's duel to succeed Josh Huston went right down to the wire before Pettrey nailed down the job. After missing his first three kicks, including two in the opener against Northern Illinois, he connected on eight of his last nine, including his last five, and wound up as the Buckeyes' second leading scorer with 79 points. He also handles the Buckeyes' kickoffs. Ryan Pretorius is a solid backup.