Much of Jim Tressel's spring preview press conference Wednesday afternoon addressed what he felt was going to be one of the major questions his team will have to try to begin to answer in the coming weeks. Namely, who will emerge as leaders on a team that will not only be without several major contributors for the first five weeks of the 2011 season but will also be without Tressel himself?
It's a fair question to ask, especially when realizing all the production the Buckeyes will be without since winning the Sugar Bowl in January. Ohio State have to replace its leading rusher (Dan Herron), starting quarterback (Terrelle Pryor), second-leading receiver (DeVier Posey) and its starting left tackle (Mike Adams) for the first five games of the season. Not only that, but the team also lost its leading receiver (Dane Sanzenbacher), top four tacklers (Brian Rolle, Ross Homan, Jermale Hines and Devon Torrence) and its placekicker (Devin Barclay) and veteran long snapper (Jake McQuaide) to graduation.
"It's going to be a little bit of a different team," Tressel said. "I think all of you know that you look down that roster and there's some folks that have played a lot of football that aren't here anymore. They've given us a tremendous amount of leadership that isn't here anymore."
Needless to say, there are plenty of major roles to fill. Fortunately for Tressel and his Buckeyes, the head coach feels there are plenty of potential leaders in each position group. He spent a large portion of his press conference talking about several players who could emerge as key Buckeyes in 2011.
Tressel mentioned many players – primarily seniors – when talking about who could emerge in 2011. On defense, Tressel referenced seniors Tyler Moeller and walk-on Nate Ebner as key guys among safeties, while at linebacker Tressel referenced players such as possible future starters Andrew Sweat, Etienne Sabino and Storm Klein. John Simon, Nathan Williams and Solomon Thomas – the fifth player who will miss the first five games while serving a suspension – were mentioned as players ready to take the next step this fall on the defensive line.
At cornerback the head coach raved about the continued development of Dominic Clarke. The sophomore saw limited action during the 2010 regular season but was thrust into action in the Sugar Bowl when senior starter Chimdi Chekwa went down with a wrist injury late in the first quarter. Clarke made three tackles in the 31-26 victory over the Razorbacks.
Clarke even drew an impressive comparison from his head coach during the press conference.
"I was talking to (former Buckeye and current New Orleans Saint Malcolm Jenkins) yesterday, and I said, ‘It's interesting to watch Dominic Clarke,' " Tressel said. " ‘We've seen that he's always had great ability. He was young. We've seen a little bit of a transformation from him, not unlike what we saw from you, Malc, when you were moving along in age. You pledged your fraternity and all the sudden you had a little bit of a humility moment from that standpoint. All the sudden your career took off.'
"We've seen a little bit of that from Dominic. He got to jump in there in the Sugar Bowl and then he had the best academic quarter he's ever had this winter. His leadership is starting to rise a little bit in the winter workouts. We're going to need that from Dominic Clarke."
On offense, Tressel extolled the virtues of linemen Michael Brewster, J.B. Shugarts and Adams. Tressel called Brewster "the best center in the country" and said Adams had his best winter as a Buckeye.
The trio of seniors will lead a group of only 10 offensive linemen this fall.
"Those three guys will have to help the rest of that young bunch." Tressel said.
At tight end, Tressel will have two players returning who played significant time last season in Jake Stoneburner and Reid Fragel. But newcomer Jeff Heuerman also drew Tressel's praise. Heuerman, an early enrollee, not only impressed Tressel but also former OSU lineman Kirk Barton. Barton is a working as a quality control coach for the Buckeyes and referred to Heuerman as a weight room MVP.
"For Barton to give you an MVP in the weight room you've got to do something," Tressel said. "I think you're going to be impressed with Jeff Heuerman."
Posey may be one of the players who will miss time this fall serving a suspension, but Tressel called him the leader of what is a thin group of wide receivers.
"DeVier Posey has done a tremendous job leading and he'll continue to do that, I promise you," Tressel said. "He'll obviously be missing some games, but I know he's excited about the fact that he's got to bring that young bunch along. He's taking that very personal. That's the type of leadership that I know he'll have."
Another suspended player, Herron, was called an emerging team leader during winter workouts.
"He's got a group of young backs that I know he'll work like crazy and he'll show great leadership," Tressel said.
The quarterback position is also looking for someone to emerge. Pryor will miss the first five games of the season and will also miss all of spring practice. His right foot is still in a walking boot, and while Tressel said hopes Pryor will be free of the boot by the end of the week, there is no set date as to when Pryor will be full go. That leaves several candidates – including freshman early enrollee Braxton Miller – to battle for the right to start for the Buckeyes as they begin the 2011 season Sept. 3 vs. Akron.
"It's going to be fun to watch – I'm going to have as much fun watching as you guys are – as to who is going to step up and emerge," Tressel said. "I think at the quarterback position the words I've always liked to use is who emerges. … It's going to be fun to see that battle at the quarterback position. But Terrelle has to do a great job from a leadership position as well."
Finally, Tressel is also looking for someone to emerge as a leader among the specialists. Ohio State will need a new place kicker and long snapper. Drew Basil appears to have the inside track to take over Barclay's kicking duties, but Tressel said punter Ben Buchanan will take some kicks this spring. Basil will also do some punting as well.