Junior tailback Lydell Ross is happy to get back on the playing field.
"I feel real good," Ross said. "The team is starting to get back in the swing of things, we're getting back to what we do."
How important is Saturday's jersey scrimmage for players like Ross?
"Every opportunity you get to get in the stadium and get in a game-type atmosphere, you've got to take advantage of it," Ross said. "Every scrimmage for the running backs is important because there is so much depth at this position. Competition is definitely out there."
With Maurice Clarett being held out of contact drills, the spring is a time for Ross and Mo Hall to show what they can do. Ross knows this better than anyone.
"With his shoulder and everything, we know the other running backs are going to get more carries," he said. "When you get chances and situations like that when you step up to the front, you just have to take advantage and do the best you can."
One of the criticisms of the offense last year was that there were not enough passes thrown to the backs. The coaches defended this by saying they needed the backs to help pass protect. Ross is still unsure whether or not we can expect more swing passes this year.
"I think we saw a little bit last year, but it's too early to tell right now if we're going to throw to the backs more this year. I hope we do."
What is the main goal of the spring for Ross?
"To emerge as No. 1 is always my goal throughout the year," he said. "But my goal this spring is just to make big plays; show everyone I can be the No. 1 man too. Saturday will be huge in that respect, especially when you're not the No. 1 guy."
The young tailback is excited about this year's offense.
"We're going to do good things on offense," Ross said. "We have all the same guys back this year and we're going to get even better."
What improvements need to be made the most?
"We can get better at everything," Ross said. "Running the ball, passing the ball, pass protection, we just need to improve day-by-day and get everything better."
Ross has bulked up quite a bit in the last three months.
"After the Miami game, I got in the weight room and I think I've improved a lot with my strength," he said. "That's one of my goals. Along with being the No. 1 guy, I want to be the strongest guy. And it doesn't just have to been among the running backs, it's the whole team."
The Tampa native has added about 15 pounds since the end of the season, but hasn't lost any of his speed.
"I'm at 224 right now. We haven't been tested yet in the 40, but the last time I ran it I was a 4.4 and I'm sure I'm still there. Even with the extra weight and muscle, I feel quicker than ever. It's lean muscle. I've lost a lot of body fat," Ross said.
What's the ideal weight for Ross?
"I want to play in the 225-230 range and last year I played at about 210. I was about 205 as a freshman."
Ross clearly feels a sense of urgency.
"This is my junior year and I need to get rolling," he said. "This spring is huge for me. I've got a shot to show what I can do."
Ross had a pretty good game in the Fiesta Bowl in limited opportunities. How much has that helped his confidence, knowing he can play at the highest level?
"A lot, especially against a team like Miami. They were the best defense we played against all year. It gives me a little more confidence knowing I can play at that level and play against a defense like that."
What has Ross seen from OSU's defense so far this spring?
"With the loss of all those seniors, they are making strides. They are looking good, especially on that defensive line."
Even though he's just 19 and won't be 20 until December, Ross wants to emerge as a leader.
"We have leaders all around the team. We have people that can get the team going and I'd like to be thought of as a leader myself," Ross said.
Quarterback Craig Krenzel says Saturday's jersey scrimmage will serve as a proving ground, despite the fact that that the color of his jersey won't change no matter the outcome.
"I wear black, so I don't think that will change either way, but I think offensively we just want to go out and prove that we've gotten a little better," Krenzel said. "Some of the things we've done during the offseason, I know we've gotten a little bit better and now we have to prove that. We're taking the steps that we need to take so when we go into next fall and the season we'll know that we are a better offense and we going to put more points on the board and take some of the pressure off our defense."
Krenzel says the pressure is on the offense, not the defense, to perform this year.
"It definitely is. And it's not saying that we don't feel our defense is going to be as good as last year's, but we're losing some major experience and those guys are going to be tough to replace. Just with the experience and the amount of games that some of those guys played here at Ohio State. Now, we've got some young guys that are extremely talented, but early on, they are going to make some rookie mistakes and young-guy mistakes and that's where we know as an offense that we're going to have to help them out winning the field position battle and not turning the ball over and most importantly above all that, putting points on the board," Krenzel said.
What are Krenzel's impression of OSU's secondary after facing them the first few days of spring ball?
"Dustin has played a year and a half at corner now and you can definitely tell he is much more comfortable and hew knows the system, knows his role as a corner and you can tell that he is focusing on his technique and just becoming a better cover corner and we'll all be better for that. On the other side, Chris (Gamble) is Chris. Probably one of the most gifted to ever come through here and he is going to have the ability to lock some guys down. At the safety position, we lost two guys that were extremely important to us, but we're replacing them with some talent. Will Allen's got some experience under his belt and he's a smart kid and is only going to get better and there's a nice battle at strong safety with Tyler Everett and all those guys and it's going to be fun to watch those guys develop as they get more reps."
There are basically eight starters returning on the offensive line, including tight end Ben Hartsock, and sophomore linemen Rob Sims and Nick Mangold. The line didn't give Krenzel much time to operate last year, but with so many guys coming back, how excited is the Buckeye QB about the O-Line?
"About as excited as I am about the rest of the offense," Krenzel said. "We have the opportunity to have a great line this year and I think anytime you can go into a season with the same personnel in tact that you had the season before, it's a major advantage. But the biggest thing to us as an offense is taking advantage of that. We've got 11, 12, 13 guys that had extensive experience last season and we want to make sure we take advantage of that. We have to make sure we don't go out and make stupid mistakes and we go out and are more consistent and that it shows. When people play us, we want them to say, 'Hey, these guys are all seniors and juniors and they have a lot of experience and they are going to put up 35-40 points up on the board.' That has to be our goal going into next season."
Overall, what young players have stood out in Krenzel's eyes?
"Roy Hall and Santonio Holmes are extremely talented and they are going to be great players here," Krenzel said. "Defensively, obviously Bobby (Carpenter) and AJ (Hawk). We've seen AJ play last year, we've seen what he can do. I think Bobby is going to be a guy that is going to step up and make some big plays for us at the linebacker position next year."
Is it safe to say that there is going to be a lot of people out to prove something at Saturday's scrimmage?
"I think so," Krenzel said. "I think everyone is trying to make a statement that, 'Hey, we've gotten better.' Offensively, I know we're trying to go out on Saturday and just execute and do what we need to do. Pass protection, open up holes for the backs, make sure we're blocking plays the right way, make sure I'm getting in the right play for us and putting us in the best situation possible."
So far, how are spring practices going in Krenzel's opinion?
"I think they are going well," he said. "Obviously, we've only had a couple practices with the pads on, but I think we're definitely improving. Our timing with the wideouts is a lot better than it has been coming into any other spring I've been here. We threw a lot all winter and I was actually telling the guys (Thursday) after practice that we're going to be throwing maybe two times a day over the summer just making sure when we come into camp this fall that we're clicking on all cylinders and the ball is where it needs to be every time, that they're running good routes and that we should be completing passes with our eyes closed."
Wide receiver Michael Jenkins isn't so sure about that "eyes closed" thing. He has his sights set on winning the scrimmage on Saturday and swapping jerseys with the defense.
"The defense has had the scarlet jerseys for the majority of the time and we need to go out there and take them from them," Jenkins said. "We're going to play just to win; put points up. It's kind of harder for us to score and a little bit easier for the defense to score points with loss of yardage plays, this and that (the defense will be awarded a two-point sack for just touching Krenzel since he can't be hit), but it will be exciting and no one really wants to walk all the way back after the game."
How important is the scrimmage in Jenkins's view?
"I think it is very big, especially for our passing game," he said. "Everybody knows we can run the ball, but we're going to get that passing game going. We just need to get that feel and that chemistry going in the spring and I think it will carry over to the fall and into the season. So, it will be big for us as receivers and quarterbacks. We know we have a job to get done out there."
According to a veteran, what do the young receivers need to concentrate on the most?
"Just doing things they need to know," Jenkins said. "Knowing routes, knowing coverages, catching the ball when it's thrown our way. Teams are going to try and probably double team me this year and if other receivers can step up and hurt those guys, that's big for our offense."
How are the young receivers developing?
"Those guys are working hard," Jenkins said. "They are trying to get on the field and perform and they're battling out there. Santonio (Holmes) has been having some knee problems, but he's still been doing real well. Roy (Hall) has been doing well too."
Has Jenkins taken any of the young guys under his wing so to speak?
"I think that just kind of happens naturally," he said. "You kind of help those guys out. But they're learning a lot. They know the offense pretty well. You just give them some pointers here and there - how to get open a little more and stuff like that - but it just comes naturally."
Have the coaches mentioned that they plan on throwing the ball more this year?
"I haven't heard much," Jenkins said. "We always go in with the mindset that we want to put up double 250's (250 rushing/passing yards) on a team. But if that running game gets going it's kind of hard to go away from that. But if the intentions are to go in and pass the ball a little more this year, I am all for it (said with a big grin) and I think we'll be productive at it."
Offensive lineman Alex Stepanovich is a player who has been working hard ever since that final gun in the Fiesta Bowl. Stepanovich has dropped about 25-30 pounds, while adding strength and quickness.
"Coach Tressel always talks about improving everything you do, on and off the field," Stepanovich said. "So, I knew I could physically play this game and mentally I could do it, but it was affecting everything I did. And maybe being a little leaner and quicker would help me out. That was why I wanted to drop the weight."
You could say that Step is a much stronger version of his old self. The No. 76 that got a lot of playing time as a true freshman. Did I mention MUCH stronger though?
"It's just how bad do you want it," Stepanovich said. "Really, for me, it was a matter of, 'I need to find the right weight to be at on the field.' It was one of those things where I needed to find the right weight and now I am comfortable. I thought I played well last year, but now I want to take it to the next level. I wanted to be a little leaner this year and have my motor going for all four quarters."
But doesn't he miss those late-night pizzas?
"It's like anything we talk about. Sacrifice for the better of the whole. I'm saving my arteries and I've saving my team hopefully by not eating those late snacks," Stepanovich joked.
In what strength areas did Stepanovich improve the most in during the offseason?
"Squat I pretty much jumped up a lot," he said. "I was in the mid-500's and now I'm in the high 6's, low 7's. It's all about explosive power. Everybody has guys that can lift a ton, but just aren't as explosive on the field. So, for me it's getting that good mixture of on the field and off the field explosiveness, but I'm more worried about how I perform on."
A 700 squat? Didn't Ross have the highest on the team with a 670?
"I think he had the highest for the skill guys," Stepanovich said.
Stepanovich was asked to compare his physical condition right now to the last two years.
"I think I'm a little quicker than two years ago and last year," he said. "I'm just trying to keep my motor going for four quarters. Last year with the weight gain, it was perfect for me and I was happy with it at the time, but I probably relied a little more on my strength. This year, I want to finish my guys, finish my blocks more and really play at a high tempo for four quarters."
With backups like Sims and Mangold (can we even consider them backups anymore), as well as Doug Datish, RJ Coleman, TJ Downing and Mike Kne stepping up, the Bucks have more depth on the offensive line than they've had in years. Stepanovich says that is a luxury he is thankful to have.
"You definitely want to have a lot of different guys that can step in and play. Our goal is 10, but you always fall into injuries and how ready guys are for Saturdays. Right now, we're happy with how we're progressing and hopefully Saturday can be a good springboard for us. But the young guys are really coming on and that should help us in the fall," Stepanovich said.
If he had to guess right now, what position will he play the most this year? Center or guard?
"To be honest, I really couldn't tell you," Stepanovich said. "I play center, but a lot of the times it's a heat-of-the-moment thing where they tell me to go to guard, so I just do my job."
Does a lot of that depend on how Mangold continues to develop? The general consensus is that he will start at center and Stepanovich will move to guard.
"Just depends on sometimes who needs a breather, or if a coach takes somebody out to talk to them about something, or maybe, like you said, to get Nick some more reps. You know, I really couldn't pinpoint it. I just have to be ready for every situation and when they tell me to move over, I do," Stepanovich said.
Does the mindset of an offensive lineman change if they move over a spot?
"A little bit," Stepanovich said. "Not many people think when you just move one man over, essentially four feet, there is much of a change, but there is. It's changes sometimes your stance, or your hand placement on defenders and things like that. My mentality is still the same, it's just a matter of getting in the groove of playing the guard position."
Does he have a preference of what position he plays this year?
"It doesn't matter. I just want to win," Stepanovich said.
The suddenly speedy Stepanovich is hoping he gets a chance to make some pull blocks this year.
"We haven't said anything yet, but hopefully I'll get some chances this year," he said. "I just need to show I can get out to the corner quick enough and I think I can. Like I said, I just kind of show up everyday and if they tell me to move over I do, and if not, I'm still at center. So, at least I still have a spot, which I'm happy with."
Defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio briefly fielded some questions. First up, he talked about one of the reasons the 2002 defense was so good.
"We charted all of our plays and we tackled 90 percent as a defense last year," Dantonio said. "Ninety percent of the time we made the tackles. We consider that an "A" performance. We had 11 runs of over 15 yards the entire year. That is a tribute to the way our players ran to the football, played with great effort and tackled in space. But again, you are losing some really good players and there are some players that need to step up. What you emphasize is trying to tackle in space everyday. We won't make them all, but we are going to emphasize that."
Does Dantonio sense some new leaders emerging on the defensive side of the ball?
"Yes and I think it is a little bit of a natural process," he said. "I am not going to try and push leadership on somebody. The players know who leads and I think people evolve to that. Players lead by example and not by talking. I think everyone can be a leader in some respects. They are going to pick their captains and it's going to evolve. We've certainly got some guys on the defense with experience, we've got some guys with maturity, we've got a tremendous amount of good people in our program and we're trying to do the right thing and people will follow that."
Specifically, who are some of those leaders on the D?
"I think that we have a very strong senior class, but I see Will Smith, Tim Anderson, Darrion (Scott) and Rob Reynolds, Fred Pagac, Will Allen and those guys," Dantonio said. "They all have a lot of experience. They have game experience and they've been around here for three or four years and they know expectations. They've been there and I think history is the best indicator of the future."
Tight end Ben Hartsock has decided not to speak with the media the rest of the season. He is always a little shy around reporters and doesn't like to talk much. NOT. The big tight end fielded some questions on Thursday and he was on top of his game as always.
First up, he made it clear that he's tired of putting on those gray jerseys for practice.
"The jersey scrimamge definitely going to be something for pride," Hartsock said. "Whoever wins this scrimmage gets to wear the scarlet jerseys and as insignificant as that might sound, a lot of guys take personal pride in that because the defense has had it for a long time and the offense has got their best opportunity in a long time to earn it back, so we're working for it."
Hartsock says there is something special about playing in Ohio Stadium, even if it's just a scrimmage.
"Everytime you go over to the stadium - empty, full, whatever - there is definitely an atmosphere that you feel and when it's a big-game-type situation, or scrimmage situation, everybody gets a little more excited than if it was here at the Woody Hayes. I think that's why they do it: to get comfortable with the field, with the atmosphere and the energy that you have when you're out playing in the middle of that big stadium."
How are the redshirt freshmen and sophomores on the defense coming along in Hartsock's opinion?
"They are coming along fast," he said. "Everybody was super impressed with how fast they came along last year as true freshmen and a lot of those defensive guys played some special teams, but now they are really coming into their own. Some more things are expected of them this year and they are really picking up the schemes and taking on more of a leadership role because with two of the three linebackers gradating this past year, they've got to be signal-callers out there and they've got a lot to pick up very quickly and they're doing well with it."
Overall, how has spring ball gone so far?
"It's been going well," Hartsock said. "It's been cold, we'd like for it to warm up a little bit, but it's going real smooth. When you get to be a little older, it just continues with the flow of having another year with the same coach and learning that same system because everybody's comfortable with everything and things seem to be going real smoothly and I think we're progressing. As an offense, we've got a lot further to go. We've got a great defensive front to go against on Saturday and I think if we can win against them, we can win against anybody."
Hartsock reiterated what he stated last week: The offense needs to step up this year.
"We want to take it upon ourselves to be the anchor of the team," he said. "Everybody knows last year the defense was the anchor and we've got to develop a sense that we can go out and dominate games and take some pressure off them because they did a lot of that for us last year with keeping points off the board and forcing teams to struggle. We've got to get to the point where we go out and put so many points on the board that it doesn't matter what the other team does."
Defensive lineman Joel Penton was asked to describe the ever-popular Hoot n' Holler drill. There has been some question as to how many players participate at once (is it 3-on-3, 4-on-4?), so we decided to find out.
"Every time that I've been involved with it there's been three offensive linemen, three defensive linemen, a quarterback - which just hands the ball off, so he doesn't really count - and then there's a running back and a defensive back and at the snap of the ball the offensive linemen try and block the defensive linemen and it's usually a pretty good stalemate and then the back will choose a hole and the defensive back will try and give him a shot. So it's basically four-on-four."
Is it one of the favorite drills among the players?
"Yeah, I haven't been here that long, but the first day we put on pads in the fall and the first day we put on pads in the spring, it's like, 'This is the day for Hoot n' Holler.' So it's pretty exciting and you have to get ready and get pumped up for it and it's a lot of fun encouraging your teammates. Everyone crowds around, it gets pretty loud and it's a good time."