Ohio State: National Chumpions! ZING!
blah blah blah hate Ohio State blah blah would like to see campus ejected into space blah blah can't possibly be worth reading due to extreme bias etc
Imagine a different world: Franklin County terrorists steal a nuke-u-lar weapon and threaten to deploy it unless Ohio State is permitted a rematch with Texas for possession of that purty glass football. You find yourself held hostage by these same terrorists (full of vim and vigor, these guys); they hold a gun to your head and say they will pull the trigger unless you correctly prognosticate the winner of the game. Who do you pick? Isn't this a hard question? (Leaving aside the fact they're liable to shoot you if you say "Texas.")
So I guess it's somewhat logical that when Texas loses that Vince Young guy and OSU returns that Troy Smith guy you put OSU #1 to start the season, but, uh... nine defensive starters, one reliable kicker, and two first round draft picks on offense depart and that doesn't bother anyone? Ohio State -- Ohio freakin' State -- is starting a senior walk-on who has never played a down on defense at cornerback and this raises not an eyebrow? Okay then. I have a hunch that assumptions were made: the secondary will reload. The pass rush will continue. The linebackers will be equally fierce. Ted Ginn can be a primary threat as a receiver.
But I digress. If the media was replaced with a parallel-universe version of itself that senselessly overrated the defensive side of the ball and placed great emphasis on special teams and place OSU 15th or something this intro section would be all "but wait: Marcus Freeman, a mess of five defensive ends from which someone good will emerge, and a longstanding tradition of excellence on D." The Buckeyes have many alluring qualities that nearly offset that walkon-at-corner thing.
But not quite.
Last Year: Very good with the standard caveat about awful Big Ten defenses. Troy Smith threw, Antonio Pittman ran, and various persons caught.
Troy Smith can run past bad defense.
Troy "Virginia Slims" Smith has come a long way, baby. Entering the 2005 season he was one supernova against Michigan away from being Bellisari II. After it Maurice Clarett's then-outlandish claim that Smith was "the next Michael Vick" stands out as the one thing in Clarett's life impossible to mock.
But we're gonna try anyway. Smith had an odd set of opponents last year that were much like Asian women: they were either very, very good or very, very bad and there was no middle ground whatsoever. (Okay, that's not entirely true. Both Michigan and a girl in DC named Kelly are exceptions.) Against the bad defenses, Smith killed. Against the good ones he was killed. So what, exactly, does it mean? Smith did what almost any quarterback would have done against all those defenses. What we can extrapolate: when given time and space Smith is an accurate passer. He's got great mobility and uses it to scramble for both yards and time. When he was confronted by defenses with good, aggressive secondaries, however, he struggles. Against Texas and Penn State he was a nonfactor, averaging only 109 yards passing per game. The only other half-legitimate defense they played was Michigan, who Smith smashed for 300 yards on 27-37 passing. One thing the Wolverine secondary was not was "aggressive," though.
There is some potential for disappointment here, but even if Smith is not the quarterback his '05 numbers imply he might be this year just due to natural improvement. Teams that aren't able to get pressure from the front four will be faced with a nasty choice between sitting back, allowing Smith to pick the defense apart, and blitzing, opening up the possibility of long scrambles or single-covered Ginn.
Antonio Pittman can run away from bad defense.
Right: not impressed by Antonio Pittman, much to the amusement of Ohio State fans. It's hard to judge his '05 season because there wasn't much data to be had against good run defenses. It appeared to me that he was good at running through big holes and falling down when contacted but struggled to make extra yards. He's not terrible, but I don't think he's anything that, say, Jason Teague wasn't. Ohio State fans fresh off the Mo Hall era may be confusing competence for superstardom. But that's just me.
I wouldn't be totally surprised if Pittman's job came under serious threat at some point during the year. Recruit Chris Wells was the #1 running back in the country according to everyone. He is strong like bull at 6'1" and 220 pounds and may be the second coming of Eddie George if he lives up to the hype. Running back is a position in which a player can come straight out of high school and make an impact (see: Mike Hart, Tyrell Sutton, Javon Ringer, etc). Wells has an impressive package of size and speed; once he gets the blitz pickups down and gets used to the increased speed of the college game he'll at least contribute. Starting is another matter. Tressel doesn't seem like the type to yank a player proven functional for a freshman, no matter how hype-laden he is, unless he finds himself in a situation where the team is drastically underperforming expectations.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Santonio Holmes takes his dapper dreads to the NFL, leaving behind Roy Hall, Anthony Gonzalez, and some guy named... uh... Ginn. Ginn was a disappointment a year ago until the moment Notre Dame decided that covering him on fly routes was optional. He managed to collect 800-some yards receiving but cracked 100 only against the Irish and Illinois; his good game against Michigan (9 catches and 89 yards, though about half of that was screens) was marred by a series of muffed punts that gave whole swaths of field away. What happened? Ginn hasn't developed into a receiver. His hands aren't great. Neither are his routes. (His Fiesta Bowl touchdown consisted of him running down the field real fast.) He just wasn't very useful against defenses that crowded him and threatened Troy Smith with pressure before he could run 50 yards downfield.
That figures to change. Quotes from Gonzalez to the effect of "Ted Ginn is the most improved player in practice" are odd and therefore likely true. His route cuts are doomed to be less explosive than one would expect -- his long, lanky body and similarly long-striding running style make it relatively easy to predict his direction* -- but that speed thing means you close your cushion at great peril. He's still not likely to end up with 80 catches unless OSU goes WR-screen mad, but he alternate between safety-paralyzing decoy and guy who catches long touchdowns.
Gonzalez, a solid route runner with excellent hands and a knack for finding the soft spot in zones, is the one who will his production shoot up with Holmes gone. He's no Ginn but don't let his lack of skin pigmentation fool you: the guy can run. Past the starters there's not much. Roy Hall hasn't proven anything in four years; backups Brian Robiske and Brian Hartline are green players who did not get much guru hype as recruits.
The projected starter at tight end, Marcel Frost, was suspended for the year after an unspecified violation of team rules and transferred to a I-AA (sorry: "Championship Division") school. Redshirt sophomore Rory Nichol returns from an injury that held him out last year to fill the starting spot.
Ack! Punts and kickoff returns, you say? There's a difference between a your typical return cut, usually slight-but-violent changes of direction designed to maintain momentum, and route cuts, which are often wholesale changes of direction. FTR, I also think this negatively impacts Steve Breaston's routes since he has the same long-striding style.)
Rating: 5. Sophomore left tackle Alex Boone is no longer drinking the GDP of Sri Lanka every weekend, so OSU has that going for them. Incidentally, he was uber-hyped as a recruit and not terrible as a true freshman. He's on a track to stardom. OSU hopes he's ready to play left tackle just two years out of high school. As a freshman, right tackle Kirk Barton impressively won the job from Datish and Schafer midway through the year. Last year he resumed his duties there until suffering an injury versus Penn State.
Assuming Tim Schaefer wins the left guard job, the interior of the line is all seniors. Center Doug Datish was a tackle last year (OSU edumacation: "has played and started all three interior line positions for the Buckeyes, including all 12 games last year at left tackle") and a guard the year before that. Right guard TJ Downing was functional a year ago.
Mangold's loss will be felt -- first round centers are exceedingly rare and Datish isn't likely to fill those shoes completely, but the line should be good. Exactly how good depends on just how Boone performs is right away. No doubt he's on a stardom track, but his starts last year came after Barton's injury. His placement at left tackle at a true sophomore is either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Veterans everywhere else and another probable star at right tackle should reassure worried Buckeye fans. Not that there are any.
Last Year: Holy pants. Ohio State played a wide array of the country's best offenses and crushed all of them, finishing fifth overall largely because running against Ohio State was an exercise in futility: teams averaged a whopping 73 yards per game. I do not wish to think about this any longer.
Rating: 4. Hey! Returning starters! Meet Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson, defensive tackles who featured on the aforementioned swarming defense. Datish describes Pitcock with the best quote I've seen in a long time:
"I've hated blocking Quinn since I got here," Datish said. "He's like a goat. I think his legs should be reversed because he's got that weird leverage thing to them. I don't know if there's anybody better in the country."
He's not much of a penetrator but he occupies blockers with the best of them. Patterson's numbers -- 7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks -- look good for a DT, but he played end last year. Three of those sacks came in the Michigan State game, when Stephon Wheeler went out and the Red Sea caved in on Drew Stanton. (On the fourth he bowled over Jake Long to sack Henne.) His move inside makes sense since he was oversized -- 285 pounds -- and not a threat to come around the edge at end. Inside he can use his push and technique to get into the backfield as others take the edge. He's sort of a poor man's Alan Branch.
The questions on defense begin with defensive end. Senior Jay Richardson has some experience on one side, starting 6 games as a sophomore before an injury forced him out of the starting lineup. He saw time in a rotation last year, but didn't do much with it: he has three sacks in his career. At this point he's a Buckeye version of Rondell Biggs, a hard worker and run stuffer who brings little playmaking to the field. The pass rush will have to come from elsewhere, probably Cass Tech alum Vernon Gholston. In '04 Gholston was a sleeper recruit described as incredibly athletic (I've seen this picture way too often -- some creepy guy at BuckeyePlanet used it as his sig) but equally raw. Two years later he's apparently progressed better than Alain Kashama did and fought his way into the starting lineup ahead of a couple highly touted recruits. OSU's proven that they can mold defensive linemen; with Gholston's evident natural ability he'll probably be good sooner or later.
Backing up the defensive ends are a trio of highly touted prospects: Lawrence Wilson, Robert Rose, and Doug Worthington. Wilson and Worthington are kind of bulky and have a redshirt year; at this point Rose is all edge-rushing terror that many need a year or two to reacclimate to college. All will see time as Ohio State tries to find the right combination.
This will be a good defensive line. Pitcock and Patterson will clog the middle ably, though neither has shown much of an inclination to penetrate and disrupt. A situational pass rusher will emerge from the defensive ends. Pressure on early downs may be an issue if Gholston does not live up to his practice buzz. OSU may have to blitz a lot on non-obvious passing downs lest their secondary get exposed.
Rating: 3. Hawk, Carpenter, and Schlegel are gone. Hurray! In their place are a highly touted recruit, a player who led his team in tackles as a freshman, and the son of Road Warrior Animal. Boo.
Strongside linebacker Marcus Freeman is the highly touted recruit. Rivals ranked him the #31 player in the country in '04; for comparison, the man Michigan fans believe to be a cross between Lawrence Taylor and Derrick Thomas, Tim Jamison, was #40. After a freshman year spent mostly on special teams he suffered a knee injury in OSU's opener and redshirted. I find it hard to believe that he "went into the season as a possible starter," as his official OSU bio claims, but everyone around the program is excited about him.
New weakside linebacker John Kerr is the former leading tackler. The catch is that Kerr's tackles came at Indiana, where he started at MLB as a freshman and racked up 114. He spent a full two years on the bench after his transfer, one mandated by the NCAA but the other due to "problems with transfer-related paperwork" according to the Columbus Dispatch, which may also be interested in this fantastic bridge I have to sell. Whatever happened, it's over now. Kerr spent last year on special teams, working his way up the depth chart. No one's seen him play linebacker since he was tackling away at Indiana.
How was work, Dad?
I bludgeoned someone with a chair.
The son of Road Warrior Animal is James Laurinatis, who you may remember from the Ohio State game last year. He entered on the second play of the game after Bobby Carpenter suffered a broken leg. After the linebacker shakeup he finds himself in the middle. He originally committed to Minnesota before switching to OSU. He wasn't a huge recruit -- three stars from both services -- and was low on the priority list of most schools, though he got December offers from UCLA and Notre Dame. Yes, yes: AJ Hawk three stars gurus useless San Dimas High Scool fooball rules. But in his two starts a year ago he got one tackle, that on Tyler Ecker's futile sojourn upfield with seconds remaining. He's a true sophomore; he won't be that good.
There's going to be a dropoff here or I'm taking my blog and going home. Freeman should be at least good, though he may be playing out of position due to shortcomings in the other two linebackers. Dispatch blogger Heath Schneider theorizes that the LB switch means Kerr is doomed and true freshman Ross Homan will end up starting once his hamstring injury is healed. Buckeye fans are salivating over Homan but the gurus were pretty meh about him and as a true freshman recovering from an injury if he starts it's a bad sign for this year.
Laurinatis obviously shows a lot of potential to start in front of highly touted JUCO recruit Larry Grant, but he's not AJ Hawk. If he is I'll cry. Kerr... who knows? I have my doubts about him. I think Grant's recruitment -- JUCOs are unusual at OSU -- speaks to question marks about the depth, especially outside, and there's a fair chance that this unit ends up disappointing. Freeman and the rep Tressel and OSU have earned keep this at a three, but it's not all roses and reloading here.
I can hear Corso now.
The early departures of Ashton Youbouty and Donte Whitner will be felt keenly. True sophomore Malcolm Jenkins "wants to be in contention for the Thorpe Award this year because it means he will be helping the Buckeyes win," which is nice but fanciful. He was a meh recruit two years ago thrust into action as the Buckeyes nickelback due to a severe lack of depth in the defensive backfield. His 37 tackles in limited time (three starts plus the aforementioned nickel duty) implies that he was picked on when he went into the game. That would be fine if he had fought back a bit, but two pass breakups and no interceptions does not count as fighting back. He was invisible during the games I saw. That's to be expected for a middling recruit pressed into service as a freshman but it also indicates that Jenkins has a way to go to replace the services of Youbouty. He'll improve, but to improve enough to be an impact corner would be a major leap forward.
Opposite Jenkins is a former walk-on, senior Antonio Smith. He's got all of six tackles to his name, he's short, he's a mechanical engineer, and he played entirely on special teams last year despite tragically short Buckeye secondary depth: these are not indicators of success. Behind him are redshirt freshmen Andre Amos and Donald Washington who, being freshmen, have just as much experience as Smith. To call cornerback a question mark is something of an understatement. Cornerback is more like "?!?!?!"
The situation at safety is similar though not so dire. Jamario O'Neal is the sophomore in the role of Jenkins. Last year he saw time on special teams; now he is thrust into the starting lineup maybe a year too early. O'Neal was much better regarded by the gurus -- top 100 by both -- but is something of a corner-safety tweener. Further hilarity from the OSU athletic department: "was moved to safety during two-a-days to take advantage of his speed."
The other safety is being battled out between little-used senior Brandon Mitchell and sophomore Nick Patterson neither has exactly stepped up; what little I can find that's not a softbatch profile consists of a random blogger on TSN saying "neither really excites me much."
This unit has the makings of a liability. If OSU doesn't get a pass rush it risks having an average (or even worse? Naw) defense, especially when nickel and dime packages are forced onto the field.
Kickers & Coverage
Rating: 3. I swear to God that if this Ryan Pretorius or Aaron Pettry kid is another Nugent or Huston I am going to flip out and kill stuff. It's MGoBlog policy not to speculate on unproven kickers, but seriously: flip out and kill stuff. You have been warned.
Punter AJ Trapasso is pretty good. Ted Ginn like returning things a long way and fumbling punts, but only sometimes. He's your proverbial weapon.
Non-Conference: Well, there's that trip to Texas you may have heard about. OSU also has a dangerous game against Northern Illinois and Garrett Wolfe to start the year. OSU should win, but NIU is liable to scare the hell out of them first. The other two games are against Bowling Green and Cincinatti.
Conference: OSU misses two probable bowl teams in Wisconsin and Purdue plus gets Michigan and Penn State at home. A trip to MSU could be dangerous; playing at Iowa after the Penn State deathmatch will be a major test.
We're Sure About
Well, very little, actually.
Troy Smith? Sure. I still have lingering doubts, but mostly because I have seizures when I try to remember his last two Michigan games.
We Have An Idea About
The secondary. A straight 1 to Purdue or Michigan State or Northwestern or whoever but bumped to a 2 simply on reputation... but OSU cannot be comfortable starting a walkon at corner and having him backed up by freshmen, especially when the other corner is a true sophomore.
The offensive line. Should be good, though a true sophomore at left tackle is a bit tetchy.
We Have No Clue About
Pass rush. Last year it came mostly from the linebackers, who often doubled as defensive ends on obvious passing downs. Those linebackers are gone and there's only one player on the line -- Gholston -- who looks like a consistent threat to the quarterback, and he's a redshirt sophomore with no experience at all.
Kicker. YOU WILL SUCK. YOU WILL MISS 25 YARD FIELD GOALS. THIS I COMMAND.
An Embarrassing Prediction, No Doubt
Well... I think it's highly doubtful OSU gets through the season undefeated. But I must concede that it's possible. 12-0.
With five apparently guaranteed wins on the schedule and a few of the "probable" wins below pretty tenuous, it's extremely unlikely that OSU drops more than three games this year. Ginn, offensive line, and Smith should combine with the probably-decent defense for another good season. 8-4 is the minimum.
Given the schedule the offense probably will be statistically explosive. Only four teams figure to have defenses that can even think of running with Ginn, Smith, et al. Given Tressel's tendency to play Lloydball in tight spots, though, the Bucks might not get all they might out of said really fast guys until the need to score is clear.
The defense is going to drop off significantly. This should not be a controversial statement when one of the most dominant Ds in recent college football memory loses nine starters and figures to start a secondary with almost no experience whatsoever. If Gholston does not produce, OSU is going to find itself exposing that secondary by blitzing or allowing itself to get picked apart. I find myself torn: it seems improbable that the OSU defense is going to be mediocre, but it seems equally improbable that patchwork secondary is going to be anything but.
Wins: Cincinnati, Bowling Green, Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern
Probable Wins: Northern Illinois, @ MSU, Minnesota (tenuous)
Tossups: @ Texas, Michigan, Penn State
Probable Losses: @ Iowa
No Chance: None
10-2, it says.