Your traditional "unresolved questions" column from an untraditional source:
Will the safeties play safe? The answer here is historically "no." Last year was an especially egregious year for the Michigan safeties. Ernest Shazor's rapid descent after the Purdue game has been hashed and rehashed here and elsewhere repeatedly, but Ryan Mundy also bears his share of blame for the problems. Mundy and Shazor (in occasional conspiracy with the linebackers) were largely responsible for the inordinate number of long plays the defense gave up last year. Shazor's now taken his million-dollar-body and ten-cent-head to the NFL. Mundy returns. Brandent Engelmon and Jamar Adams are competing for the vacant spot.
Michigan safety play has been horrendous since Marcus Ray got hammered for dealing with an agent. A parade of tackle-missing, angle-blowing, play-action-biting, mgoblog-anger-generating straight-up-lowdown hardcore wack injured guys playing out of position have been the personal bane of my existence for going on eight years now. Ron English has shown no indication that he's interested in changing this. Ryan Mundy probably played corner as a freshman for a reason. The guy opposite him is unknown at this late point in the preseason. I expect nothing but disaster. all I want are guys who I don't notice at all, guys who play deep zones effectively, tackle opponents who get into the secondary, and never, ever make a big play. Is that too much to ask?
Relative Confidence Level: Yes, it's too much to ask. DOA.
Who's the left guard? Or "who's the center," but probably left guard. Three of the five offensive line positions are set: LT Adam Stenavich, RG Matt Lentz, and RT Jake Long. Ruben Riley will start at either center or left guard. The other starter will come from this pool of players:
- Fifth year senior Leo Henige, Jr. Henige has started on and off for a couple years now during the brief stretches of time that his knees allow him to. He was slightly injured late in the summer and had minor surgery.
- Redshirt sophomore Adam Kraus. A converted tight end, Kraus would probably have locked the job up already if he had been healthy during spring practice. Unfortunately, that wasn't possible. Worth noting: if it's Kraus, Riley will probably remain at left guard and Kraus will step in at center.
- Redshirt freshman Alex Mitchell. Mitchell is definitely the most advanced of the redshirt freshman and is probably in line for a starting job next year when Matt Lentz graduates.
It may take a few games to work the kinks out here, but with three strong candidates someone should step into the void vacated by David Baas. My bet is that it's Kraus, who has a year over Mitchell and is not a walking time bomb like Henige. Better to get Kraus significant experience going into the Big Ten season than stick a possibly-still-wounded Henige in there only to see him go down, thrusting a green player into a potentially tough situation. Be like Red: go with youth.
Relative Confidence Level: Very high.
Do we have any linebackers at all? If you had turned to a knowledgable Michigan fan during last year's season opener and asked him to name the 2005 starting linebacker corps he would have said "Lawrence Reid, Scott McClintock, and Pierre Woods" and been wrong, wrong, and wrong. Reid was forced to retire because of an injury. McClintock got beat out. Woods took the express train to Lloyd Carr's doghouse. The starters appear to be Chris Graham, David Harris, and Prescott Burgess.
The situation should improve. Last year was the low ebb of Michigan linebacker play in living memory; things can't be that bad again. Defensive ends were playing out of position. Actual linebackers were confused/out of their gourd/playing hurt. Dissent reigned. Burgess (but just Burgess) was very good in the Rose Bowl and Graham has been generating buzz for a solid year now. Woods may bounce back. On the other hand, that same guy who was coaching the disaster last year is still coaching them this year. He seems hell-bent on playing both the 3-4 and the 4-3, running people on and off the field uselessly, and generally confusing the hell out of his own players.
Relative Confidence Level: Surprisingly moderate.
Can the defensive line dominate? If it does, the pressure on the back seven will be greatly relieved. Three starters return: Watson, Massey, and Woodley. Woodley should see much more time at his more natural defensive end spot and has the power and speed to become a double-digit sacker under the tutelage of new defensive line coach Steve Stripling. Stripling, in marked contrast to former coach Mike Sheridan, has extensive experience coaching defensive lines and is regarded highly by all who know him. Though he couldn't do much with a severely hampered MSU line last year, in 2003 he coached a moderately talented line very well and helped the Spartans exceed expectations significantly.
The key to the line will be getting more production from the guys who aren't Watson and Woodley. Watson, being a Ticonderoga-class defensive tackle (HT: TMQ), can only be effective for so many plays a game. Backup DTs Alan Branch and Will Johnson will see playing time early and often. Both are the sort of jumbo athletes who move too fast than anyone their size has a right to, Branch in particular. If they can effectively spell Watson and Massey for stretches at a time, there will be some pissed off interior linemen being eaten in fourth quarters all season long. Someone will have to function as an effective pass rusher opposite Woodley. There are a lot of options here: natural DEs Jeremy Van Alstyne and Tim Jamison plus DE/OLB hybrids Pierre Woods and Shawn Crable. Van Alstyne will probably start the season as the all-purpose DE but Jamison, Woods, and Crable will all get cracks at the quarterback in passing situations.
There is much depth. The players on the line should improve naturally by aging and were already quite good a year ago. If Stripling has a noticeable effect on the line, well, the sky is the limit and all that jazz.
Relative Confidence Level: High, but not amazingly so. Michigan's never been a team for explosive pass rush. Fighting a lot of history.
Is Chad Henne the new Tom Brady? Chad Henne must improve. Last year bad reads, occasional wild throws, and a problem putting proper touch on short balls prevented him from being an efficient, consistent quarterback. The Braylon Edwards long ball was a major feature of the UM passing game that will not return in 2005. Henne will be blessed with an abundance of targets, but with YAC specialist Steve Breaston, possesion receiver par excellence Jason Avant, two capable tight ends, and Michigan's historic reliance on the screen and flare, it will be on Henne's shoulders to lead an effective short passing game by making quick, accurate reads and placing balls where they can be caught without breaking stride. Sort of like that Brady dude in New England.
It's a lot for a true sophomore to absorb. But let's review: statistically most proficient freshman quarterback in Big Ten history. Only freshman quarterback to ever start Rose Bowl. In said game threw four touchdowns and no interceptions. A freshman year almost identical to the year fifth year senior John Navarre had in 2003 throwing to essentially the same set of receivers. And about that Navarre guy: He was bad as a sophomore. Frighteningly bad. Single-handedly-lose-the-OSU-game bad. A year later he was the whole Michigan offense against Ohio State. In the Shoe, against a 12-0 team with a great defense, Michigan's offense went:
- First down run, one yard gain.
- Second down run, no gain.
- Laser accurate pass from Navarre, f
The point? Scot Loeffler is even more of a supergenius than Charlie Weis. Navarre went from a no-hoper to an All Big Ten quarterback. Loeffler got everything he could out of him. This is why Henne will be better:
- a year of experience
- knowledge of the whole playbook
- a whole slew of additional bowl practices and spring practices
- Scot Loeffler
- the return (or addition) of all this: Breaston, Breaston's explosiveness, Avant, Massaquoi, Ecker, Hart, Grady, Martin, Manningham, Dutch
this is why he'll be worse:
- no Braylon
Y'all can think what you want. I know what I think.
Relative Confidence Level: I see your Ron Powlus and raise you six Heismans.
The newest Wolverines wanna cookie. Wanna
cookie real bad, Mister. Mister blogman. We
like Dora the Explorer, Mister blogman. Yay.
So Chris Heisenberg is reporting that Michigan has two hockey commits for... 2008(!). These kids, who both play for Honeybaked AAA, were born in 1990. They have no idea who Vanilla Ice is. "Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em" makes no sense to them whatsoever. C&C Music Factory? A mere rumor. I am old, about to die in 3... 2... 1...
Guess not. Wow, music sucked in the early 90s. Anyway. They have names: AJ Jenks and Robbie Czarnik. They are forwards. They score a lot for their teams. They can't drive. Heisenberg lists Jenks at 6'2", 174, which is freaking huge for a hockey player who just turned 15. They're probably somewhere between pretty and really amazingly good for Michigan to offer scholarships to them this early. The last guy who committed that young was Jack Johnson. He is amazingly good. So, hurray, I guess. No doubt nefarious OHL clubs will make runs at them, and it's really bold to project these guys as high level D-I players so far into the future. It worked out last time (knock on wood).
They're obligatory. Please take all this with a grain of salt; simply for comparison with the year-end ABT teams so I can revel in how very wrong I am.
|First Team||Second Team|
|QB||Drew Stanton||Michigan State||Drew Tate||Iowa|
|RB||Lawrence Maroney||Minnesota||Mike Hart||Michigan|
|FB||Matt Bernstein||Wisconsin||I'm Out of Fullbacks||N/A|
|WR||Ed Hinkel||Iowa||Ted Ginn||OSU|
|WR||Santonio Holmes||OSU||Dorien Bryant||Purdue|
|WR||Jason Avant||Michigan||Steve Breaston||Michigan|
|TE||Matt Spaeth||Minnesota||Charles Davis||Purdue|
|OL||Jake Long||Michigan||Matt Lentz||Michigan|
|OL||Greg Eslinger||Minnesota||Ruben Riley||Michigan|
|OL||Zach Strief||Northwestern||Mark Setterstrom||Minnesota|
|OL||Chris Morris||Michigan State||Nick Mangold||OSU|
|OL||Joe Thomas||Wisconsin||Rob Sims||OSU|
Yes, I omitted Henne. No, I don't expect I'll omit him from the postseason list. Extra WR slot because so many teams are using like 8 of them.
|First Team||Second Team|
|DE||Lamarr Woodley||Michigan||Tamba Hali||Penn State|
|DE||Ray Edwards||Purdue||Anthony Spencer||Purdue|
|DT||Gabe Watson||Michigan||Anthony Montgomery||Minnesota|
|DT||Brandon Villareal||Purdue||Quinn Pitcock||OSU|
|LB||AJ Hawk||OSU||Tim McGarigle||Northwestern|
|LB||Paul Posluzny||Penn State||Kyle Killion||Indiana|
|LB||Chad Greenway||Iowa||Dan Connor||Penn State|
|LB||Abdul Hodge||Iowa||Bobby Carpenter||OSU|
|CB||Alan Zemitas||Penn State||Leon Hall||Michigan|
|CB||Ashton Youboty||OSU||Antwan Allen||Iowa|
|S||Bernard Pollard||Purdue||Calvin Lowry||Penn State|
|S||Nate Salley||OSU||Miguel Merrick||Iowa|
Extra bonus linebacker spot just so I can cram a couple more deserving players on there.
|First Team||Second Team|
|P||Brandon Fields||Michigan State||Steve Weatherford||Illinois|
|K||Kyle Schlicher||Iowa||Garrett Rivas||Michigan|
|PR||Ted Ginn||OSU||Steve Breaston||Michigan|
|KR||Lance Bennett||Indiana||Steve Breaston||Michigan|
Breaston largely because I ran out of KRs.
The Round Mound of Coaching Renown is at it again. At this point he may as well be handing out little cards that say "Weis E. Coyote, Super Genius":
Weis has made the transition to the college game from the pros in a span of eight months. In that time, he has an idea of what to expect from the schedule and the schemes his team will see.
"I think it's significantly easier because the intricacies of the system," Weis said about making the jump from the pros to college versus going college to pro. "Pittsburgh doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out what they're going to do. Michigan, it doesn't take a brain surgeon. Michigan State will have played two games by the time we've played them. Washington three games. Purdue has a bye in there so they also will have played three games. I've looked at the schedule."
I've never really been one of those guys who need to see ND lose consistently (though it has been nice). When Michigan beats ND I want them to have a good season so it reflects well on Michigan. No longer. Nothing would be more satisfying than seeing the Supergenius get 11 anvils to the head.
(Soonerfark on Weis. Not their best work, but whatever.)
We have our own Supergenius, I guess. Terry Malone was named Rivals' top offensive coordinator in all of college football. Uh. Don't get me wrong, I like Malone a lot, but doesn't there have to be someone at one of those sophist-o-schoools who's the (Bettie Marie) Best Ever? I guess most of your Texas Techs, Purdues, Boise States, and Louisvilles have head coaches who functionally double as offensive coordinator. So finding OCs who actually head up good offenses is somewhat difficult.
Speaking of Malone, he told Angelique S. Chengelis things about Henne:
Physically he'll be so much more ready because of the conditioning and the weight training and the year's worth of work that you need to go through to be ready to play," Malone said. "To think he went through an entire season and never really had a major drop-off is amazing. I expect to see him really taking it to a higher level just because of the physical part of it."
Because Henne is stronger and has a better feel for the offense, Malone will be able to use him differently.
"We'll certainly be moving the quarterback more than we did last year," Malone said.
Emphasis mine. Git yur waggle on, girl. Chengelis also thinks that Max Martin will have a "breakout year," but she's the one who said that Troy Smith was better than Vince Young, so I would cock an eyebrow dismissively if I were you.
A long package-linger is heavily implied by the Detroit News:
The Maximum Output track club prepares to run sprint drills with a shirtless and obviously ripped Braylon Edwards during a training session last month at Birmingham Groves High.
Angelique, you naughty girl. Oh, yeah, read the article. And this one on Breaston.
The Eye on the Bucks continues. Buckeye Commentary reports that QB Justin Zwick is a bit hobbled, but it's probably not serious enough to affect him in the opener against Miami (OH). That game could be interesting. Miami has consistently been one of the better MAC programs over the last few years, has a veteran QB in Josh Betts and a spread offense well suited to get a lot of inexperienced Buckeye corners on the field.
I reiterate: Holy John Navarre, Batman.
They can never take our freedom! QB recruit David Cone, right, likes "The Patriot," says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution(AR). They also say he's one of the best 11 players in Georgia this year (damn well better be, is what I'm saying). Looks like the rest of Cone's high school is full of midgets who like Penn State a lot. Which would explain a lot about that record the last five years.
That's part of a photo spread with Georgia HS football players and their favorite movies. This is Marcus Ball as Samuel L. Jackson:
Mustache Thursday, bitches.
What a country!
More on the bouncing ball: Andy Katz says all aboard the Amaker bandwagon, pegging Michigan #30 next year:
The Wolverines should be one of the top teams in the Big Ten. We underscore should. The talent, if healthy, is in place with the return of Lester Abram, Dion Harris and Daniel Horton in the backcourt and a frontcourt of Chris Hunter, Brent Petway, Graham Brown and Courtney Sims. There really is no excuse for the Wolverines, if healthy again, to not be a factor all season.
This is Amaker's make or break year. He may get another if there's a disappointing season but it'll be really hard to convince recruits and fans that he's got what it takes to build a consistent program.
On the recruiting side of the fence, Chair has some more interesting WOTS over at PrepSpotlight(AR):
OK, Will or Tory -- who is U-M's 'Plan A'?
WOTS say it is MOST DEFINITELY Will Walker and this has made this abundantly clear to all parties involved. I can't stress this enough.
Dude. He who hesitates and flirts with Florida is lost, apparently. Chair also reiterates that Michigan is looking very good for '07 OH SF Chris Wright, who was #29 in the recently released Rivals 100 for 2007.
This is thoroughly strange. Okay. I've come to terms with Texas #2 after Duh at #1. Then... I run out of top ten teams at about five. Seriously. I don't want to rank anyone sixth. I had severe issues ranking someone #2. So you can look at this like #1 USC. 2-5: Some teams. 6-10: Some more teams.
I am accepting feedback on this thing before I submit it towards the end of the week. I'm open for your input on just about everybody. Suggest away.
|1||Southern Cal||Sophisticated as hail.|
|2||Texas||I am contractually bound to fear Vince Young as if he was Satan incarnate after the Rose Bowl.|
|3||Michigan||Homer pick? I dunno. This is where I think they go now.|
|4||LSU||One quarterback away from Zow! No, not that Zow.|
|5||Tennessee||Ainge sort of shaky end of last year, plus major secondary issues.|
|6||Miami (Florida)||Also contractually obligated to have one Florida team in the top ten.|
|7||Purdue||Snakebitten last year, now have a healthy kicker and the whole defense back. Everybody.|
|8||Virginia Tech||Sorry, Ian.|
|9||Oklahoma||No one except Adrian Peterson is back. That's still pretty good.|
|10||Florida||Seriously, who names their kid "Urban"?|
|11||Ohio State||Troy Smith sucks; a lot of other parts don't.|
|12||Louisville||Probably going to annihilate everyone they play. Have scads of talent relative to rest of Big East... how exactly did this happen? Louisville is in Kentucky.|
|13||Texas A&M||Franchione liftoff year, also many people back from last season... last season when they lost to Baylor!|
|14||Iowa||I fear Kirk Ferentz. I do not fear 255 pound redshirt freshman defensive tackles.|
|15||Arizona State||Hi Sam Keller. You probably did the right thing.|
|16||Georgia||Tee Martin hypothesis tested this year. Everyone forgot about that Ware kid, but he's pretty good himself.|
|17||Cal||Expect a lot of tasteless headlines featuring Marshawn Lynch.|
|19||Boston College||Stupid Pat Eaves.|
|20||Bowling Green||The best quarterback in college football. Shi'ite defense.|
|21||Florida State||No quarterback, no Cromartie, Jeff Bowden, real teams to oppose. Dadgummit.|
|22||Minnesota||Half of a really, really good team. Half of a violent illness.|
|23||North Carolina State||Section Six convinced me. I also have a soft spot for losers of tight games.|
|24||Texas Tech||OMG OMG OMG OMG THROW|
Update: After consideration and some input, I flipped Texas A&M and Arizona State. Ditto for Bowling Green and Auburn. This one's in the system, baby.
(Explanatory details here.)
(Look, for reasons which should be obvious and will become more so the week before the game, I
strongly dislike desire to smite flat-out effing hate tOSU. This mostly stems from a trip to Columbus wherein I nearly got in two fistfights because I was wearing the wrong colors and a handicapped guy was beat up.* So you can cry bias here if you like.)
*(Exaggeration. He was shoved to the ground by someone attempting to tackle a friend of mine who--get this--was walking to the game. The nerve. Anyway, Mr. Handicapped has cerebral palsy; he's going to be a pediatrician. I'm not making this up, I swear to God.)
Last year I was sitting at Arbor Brewing Company, enjoying a beer with a girl I was about to date. I was trying really hard to pay attention to her, but the persistent flickering of the Northwestern-Ohio State game going on behind her head made it near-impossible to do so. I explained my difficulty and my dismay when Ohio State tied the game and sent it to overtime. "They always do this," I said. "They always pull games they have no business winning out of their Katzenmoyer." I awaited the inevitable, improbable turn of events that would result in another victory so stolen you could only buy it from the back of a van. This did not happen. The Wildcats won their first game against Ohio State in over 30 years. We've been married for ten years. (Or maybe we broke up three months later. Deduce!)
It got better. Ohio State proceeded lose to Wisconsin, again, and then was messily beheaded at Kinnick. By the time the Michigan-Ohio State game rolled around, Michigan was 9-1, headed for the Rose Bowl; Ohio State was 6-4, headed for Detroit. Then that happened. That thing. That horrible unexplainable thing with no possible justifications that featured a heavily favored team in the Michigan-Ohio State game going down to ignominious defeat and the newly saved season of the underdog.
There ain't no way around it: we got Coopered.
Ohio State proceeded to nuke Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl. Almost every starter returns, and those lost (Dustin Fox, the running backs) weren't very good anyway. So. There's reason for optimism in the Worst Place On Earth. But isn't claiming the Buckeyes a national championship contender a fit of irrational exuberance, in the words of Alan Greenspan? Is this not a team that got one good game from a quarterback last year, has a running back situation featuring two freshmen and a sophomore (who has not run for 1400 yards), can't start the same offensive line from one game to the next, has exactly one cornerback and no pass rush? Isn't Ted Nugent gone?
Yeah, everyone's got questions. But those are questions like so: !? Oh, the Buckeyes will be better. But I'll believe Troy Smith, Actual Quarterback when I see it more than once.
Unit By Unit
Are you sure that's the end zone?
Rating: 2. One game against Michigan turned Troy Smith from a really tan version of Steve Bellisari into the next next Michael Vick. But the new Ron New Mexico he ain't. I present to you the Troy Smith Resume:
- Indiana: (Is Bad At Football.) Smith goes 12 for 24 for 160 yards and two touchdowns. Ohio State wins 30-7.
- Penn State: Ohio State attempts a total of eight passes. They gain 202 yards and win 21-10 by returning a punt and interception for touchdowns and getting a 35 yard touchdown drive after a long kickoff return.
- Michigan State: Against one of the worst defenses in the country, Smith goes 13-21 for 138 yards, 58 of which came on a slant where MSU's very special secondary blew the angle on Ginn. His other 20 attempts netted 80 yards. OSU scored on a 17 yard Ginn reverse after a Damon Dowdell interception, a Ginn punt return, a 19-yard drive to get a 53-yard Nugent field goal, the Ginn slant, and a long touchdown run trying to run out the clock.
- Purdue: Smith completes less than 50% of his passes and throws three second-half interceptions. OSU loses 24-17, though Smith does lead two moderately long touchdown drives.
- Michigan: Inexplicably explodes for approximately eight billion yards. Drives me to brink of homicidal rampage.
- Oklahoma State: Watches from bench.
Which of these events appears to be the outlier? Yes. That's correct. I will grant you that quarterbacks improve with experience and time. I will grant you that Smith made a number of big plays against Michigan. But that's it. Without drastic improvement, Smith is an erratic thrower prone to poor decisions who's a good runner. This makes you walk on water against Michigan and the Keystone Klinebackers, but it does not imply success against other teams. Ohio State's offense was terrible last year, and Troy Smith was a major reason why. This is not a strength.
Then there's the other guy. Justin Zwick lost his job to that guy after completing just over half his passes and throwing six touchdowns and six interceptions early in the year. He was totally overwhelmed in his first year as a starter. Because Troy Smith accepted $500 from a booster (there's that poor decision-making again) after the Michigan game, Zwick started the Alamo Bowl and will start against Miami (Ohio) in the opener. He may play against Texas. Zwick's essentially a version of Smith that can't run.
Rating: 2. The Buckeyes are young and unproven at this position. Three mediocre seniors graduated, leaving two freshmen and a sophomore competing for the job. The presumed starter is Antonio Pittman, the Buckeyes' second leading rusher last year with, uh, 403 yards on 72 carries. That is a healthy 5.3 yards per carry, but that's highly distorted by his 20 carries for 144 yards against Indiana. Now, everyone gets to play Indiana or teams like them, but a set of rushing statistics featuring more than a quarter of the carries and a third of the yards from a game against the Hoosiers is optimistic. He's speedy but not the kind of guy who can pick through the carnage the Buckeye offensive line let through last year. He can't possibly be worse than the departees--the season will tell whether he's any better.
True freshman Maurice Wells, one of those 5'9" scatback types, may be the best bet for a competent running back in Columbus this year. Wells rushed for some ridiculous number of yards in a game last year--a quick check reveals it to be 429--and was one of those Rivals 100 guys. If he picks up the offense (and how hard can it be to pick up the Buckeye offense) he will definitely get a shot at the starting job.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Rating: 5. Well, Ginn and Holmes are good if OSU can get the ball in their hands--which they will. Expect Ginn to be the recipient of all manner of screens, reverses, handoffs, shovel passes, and honest-to-goodness downfield receptions. The problem is that if there aren't enough of the latter teams will encroach upon the line of scrimmage and limit the effectiveness of the former.
For all the hype surrounding Ginn, it's worth noting that he only caught 25 passes last year and a good number of those were screens or short, simple routes. Ginn has yet to display any route-running acumen, ability to adjust to a deep ball in fligh
t, or sticky hands. The jury is still out. Sure, the jury's probably going to come back and say OMG TED GINN IS FAST, but I'm just saying: he's not the best receiver in the conference yet.
Santonio Holmes is, at least to NFL draft types. In fact, some people believe him to be the best receiver in the nation (in what appears to be a really weak year for wide receivers in general). He's certainly your prototypical WR, big, fast, and a good route runner, but he didn't really knock anyone's socks off last year. He had a huge game against Marshall (224 yards) but was hardly utilized in the Big Ten after the opening loss to Northwestern when he had 99 yards. His next best game was a three-catch, 50 yard performance against Michigan. If the quarterback situation doesn't improve it'll probably be more of the same. Ginn will get all the short screeny stuff and Holmes will run downfield, wondering what the point of it all is.
Ohio State apparently believes that every wide receiver on the roster would start for most teams nationwide, but, uh, probably not. There's good depth here, but that won't be the issue. The issue will be getting it in #1 and #2's hands often enough to make a difference.
Rating: 3. When you finish 98th in total offense there's plenty of blame to go around. The offensive line was confused, porous, and generally bad despite having a couple of extremely talented players--Center Nick Mangold and newly-switched left guard Rob Sims are both seniors who will probably be drafted by NFL teams next year. It's just the other three guys that are the problem, whoever they are.
Ohio State played musical chairs all year trying to find a combination that worked. Three players took turns screwing up at right tackle before then-sophomore Kirk Barton took hold of the job five games into the season, but that didn't prevent OSU coaches from tearing the redshirt off Steve Rehring halfway through the year and playing him. The left guard spot was absolute chaos all year. TJ Downing started three of the last four games and appears to have a hold on the starting job going into the season. Mike Kne, a former walk-on who transferred from mighty Fordham, started at right guard.
The chairs have already started rotating again this year. Sims has been moved to left guard, bumping Doug Datish out of a starting spot. Sophomore Rehring is the new left tackle--either a disaster waiting to happen or a great sign that Rehring is going to be an All Big Ten-type down the line. Only the season will reveal the answer. So, you've got Sims and Mangold as solid starters, a new guy at LT, Downing at LG, and Barton at RT. The Buckeye coaches have faith in two of these guys. Better than last year. Not great.
Rating: 4. There's no Will Smith for the Buckeyes this year but the line will be all right. Three of four starters return. Quinn Pitcock had a nice year as a redshirt sophomore last year and Mike Kudla was effective when he recovered from a pinched nerve sustained earlier in the year, but the line did not put up particularly impressive numbers as individuals. As a unit, however, the defensive line has to be given some credit for aiding Ohio State's run defense. No one yields 3.5 yards a carry and just 3.2 in conference without a front seven that's solid all around. The linebackers are the primary force behind that but not the only one.
The run defense will be good to great this year, but there's still the matter of that pass rush. Kudla managed 4 in his injury-hampered year but nobody else who returns had more than 2 except linebacker Anthony Schlegel, and a full quarter of OSU sacks (6) came against lowly Indiana. Someone has to step up here to pair with Kudla, be it Vernon Gholston or Jay Richardson.
If only OSU had a linebacker named "Animal"
Rating: 5.Duh, right? AJ Hawk, Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter, etc. All rack up huge numbers of tackles and are the real reason the Buckeye defense was so stiff against the run last year. mgoblog specifically remembers the first play of the second half in last year's Michigan-Ohio State game. A run blitz picked off Mike Hart's lead blocker but a cavernous hole opened up on the weak side of the line. AJ Hawk filled it, thumped Hart, and it was second and ten. This was in marked contrast to what usually happened when Mike Hart found a linebacker in the hole: Hart would do something totally sweet and disappear while the linebacker sat there with a big question mark over his head, Looney-Tunes style. It was also typical of Hawk and the Borg linebackers OSU has rolled out for a while now--efficient, no nonsense, impossible to destroy even with, like, photon torpedoes and stuff.
There won't be any drop off. Everyone is back this year. Hawk is the favorite for the Butkus and despite the fact that Mike D'Andrea is probably going to have to take a redshirt this year because of a serious injury he sustained, there's plenty of depth. This is the best linebacker corps in the country and it isn't particularly close.
Rating: 3. The dirty secret of the Buckeye defense last year was that they weren't that good defending the pass. Kyle Orton and Brandon Kirsch combined to go 29 for 42 and threw three touchdowns. Drew Tate nuked the Buckeyes, going 26 for 39 and putting up 331 yards. Chad Henne was 27 for 54 and threw for 328 yards. He also threw two interceptions that were more due to bad reads than anything else. Hell, even wobble-armed Northwestern quarterback Brett Basanez went 24 for 44 and put up 278 yards. Ohio State crushified the passing offenses of its nonconference foes, but in the Big Ten they gave up 235.1 yards per game, better than only Minnesota and Indiana.
Some of that yardage was definitely caused by teams avoiding the Buckeyes' fierce run defense. They were significantly better in efficiency terms, but still only fifth in the conference and not too far (1.1 points) off of seventh, despite having 11 interceptions. Ohio State let its opponents complete 58.4 percent of their passes, third from the bottom in the league. Add it all up and you get a pass defense that was thoroughly meh.
The primary reason for this seems to be that Ohio State, much like Michigan, has a major issue at the "other" corner spot. Junior Ashton Youboty (4 int, 14 PBU) is a rising star destined for the EDSBS All Name Team, but converted safety Tyler Everett, who missed spring practice, is the projected starter opposite him and it's anyone's guess what's going on past him. Everett's move seems like a bit of a panic decision. He's a senior who has played safety his first three years; strange to move him now unless there's a serious hole opposite Youboty; there is. The safeties are thumping run defenders but not great in coverage. Last year Nate Salley and Donte Whitner, who both missed two games, combined for 134 tackles... and 6 pass breakups. Whitner contributed one of those.
Past the four starters there is junior safety Brandon Mitchell and a bunch of freshmen, redshirt and true. Obviously, no one other than Mitchell has any experience whatsoever, but there are enough numbers (six in total) to expect a player or two to emerge. Jamario O'Neal, he of the yielding 255 yards and 3 touchdowns to Mario Manningham (maybe "Ja" means "toast" in Afrikaans), will also see playing time. Hopefully directly opposite Manningham.
And then there's that Ginn dude. Given the fact that Ginn is still a very raw receiver, it would be surprising to see him play extensively at defensive back this year. The alarming lack of depth could necessitate him seeing the field in nickel o
r dime situations late in the year, however, if no one steps forward.
You ain't kidding.
Rating: 5. Ted Ginn, and how. Ginn returned 15 punts last year, 4 of them for touchdowns, and averaged over 23 yards a return. Ridiculous. He's already Ohio State's career leader in punt return touchdowns. Santonio Holmes didn't do so badly himself, averaging over 10 yards a return and scoring a touchdown of his own.
The question here is how many opportunities will Ginn get this year? If the OSU offense limps along as much as it did last year kicking away from Ginn will be a no-brainer. It may even be a good idea if Troy Smith improves.
Rating: N/A. Mike Nugent is gone. So is punter Kyle Trappasso. Nugent's replacement, sixth-year senior Josh Huston, is reputed to be pretty good, but it's mgoblog policy to not speculate on kickers, who are about as reliable as the Des Moines Register. (ZING!)
OSU is featured in the premiere nonconference game of the season when it takes on Texas. That's a home night game and thus many ascribing a huge homefield advantage to the Buckeyes, but Texas is not going to go away easily. No doubt OSU's linebackers will do a better job against Vince Young than Michigan's did, but there's a definite possibility that he is a superhero who cannot be stopped. The Longhorns return about as much as OSU does and have definite advantages at offensive line, defensive line, the secondary, and quarterback. It'll be close, but I don't think OSU wins.
The Big Ten schedule isn't terrible. OSU misses conference contender Purdue and Wisconsin; the Badgers have owned the Buckeyes in recent years. The Big Ten schedule opens up with a tough stretch: home games against Iowa and Michigan State with a trip to Happy Valley in between. After that there are road games against Minnesota and Michigan with Illinois/Indiana/Northwestern creampuffs scattered in between.
Keys to the Season
Don't Get Arrested All At Once okay, okay... seriously...
Sophisticate. At some point Ohio State is going to have to come to the conclusion that whatever Jim Tressel is doing on offense just isn't working. The Buckeyes have been a disjointed Keystone Kops operation far too often for a major college program. Another 8-4 year featuring the head-bonking exploits of an incompetent two-headed quarterback and Jim Herrmann will have some company on the "hot-seat-but-never-fired" bench.
Cease The Musical Chairs. Some shuffling at the beginning of the season is par for the course for most offensive lines around the country, but the revolving door at every position except LT and C last year severely hurt the Buckeyes' attempts to, you know, score and stuff. This year they've already shifted Rob Sims, a two year starter, inside and promote Steve Rehring to a starting job. Troy Smith is not going to be the type of guy to lead you down the field in 15 yard chunks without the aid of a significantly improved running game, which rest heavily on the shoulders of the offensive line. It was a makeshift, patchwork unit last year. They have to find some stability here or the running game is going to languish and the offense is going to be stuck hurling it to Ginn and hoping.
You can cross the line of scrimmage. Ohio State is going to need a strong pass rush this year to have a chance of shutting down your Drew Tates and your Chad Hennes. Ashton Youboty can only cover one of Hinkel/Solomon and Breaston/Avant. Mike Kudla showed some pass rush flair last year but was basically the only one. OSU needs to find another player who can put heat on the quarterback or they're going to be staring at the back of Tyler Everett's jersey far too much for taste this year.
Worst Case: If the quarterback situation does not improve it won't matter how brilliant Ginn is, because he has to be given the ball somehow. Ohio State should be a better team this year, but the nonconference game against Texas is nasty and if the Real Troy Smith turns out to be the guy who played against Michigan State instead of Michigan, Ohio State could well stumble to 6-5 if its fortunes in close games (and there will be a ton of close games) take a turn for the worse. A team so heavily dependent on one player has a huge potential swing; see Michigan State.
Best Case: If Troy Smith is the quarterback that took the field against Michigan... well, he's not. Let's just end that speculation right there. If Troy Smith is reasonably efficient and competent, the Buckeyes have a lot of the pieces to make a serious run this year. But to be a real contender they need to ramp their defense up to a dominating level--which means finding, like, three corners and getting a pass rush--or have something approximating a modern offense--meaning an offensive line that doesn't shuffle itself every game, a running back who's not really terrible, and a quarterback with a clue. I don't think either of those things will assemble itself enough for the Buckeyes to scrape through this year undefeated, but 10-1 is a possibility.
mgoblog says... the hype being extruded by CFN and their ilk about the Buckeyes is incorrect. They will be a good team, a better team than last year. But they are scrambling for an answer at cornerback and their offensive backfield appears to be one of the worst in the conference. The offensive line will be okay but that's all. If Ohio State is expecting Ginn's performance to scale proportionately with his playing time they'll probably be disappointed. His punt return exploits from last year are not reproducible. As a receiver he is still unproven. Yes, he's really good. He's not that good. No one is.
Is this Ohio State offense going to perk up? Probably some, but not much. The defense will be very, very difficult to run against, but Ineffective Pass Rush + Thin Secondary + Toastmario O'Neal == More Big Passing Days Against.
Texas beats OSU out of conference, and then OSU embarks on another highwire act of ugly games won and lost on punt returns, long field goals, and turnovers which they mostly end up on the good side of, but not always. OSU loses two games in conference, probably against Michigan and one of Penn State, Michigan State, or Iowa. 8-3, 6-2 Big Ten, 3rd place.