What will the Ohio State offense look like?
Well, if I could tell you that, then I would (take your pick):
A. Have my own talk show where I speak not to spirits of the departed but to fans across the nation looking for tips on their teams
B. Be well on my way to my first million dollars as the author of the bestselling book: "Everything Ohio State Fans Want to Know but Could Not Ask"
C. Be a member of The Ohio State coaching staff
Perhaps the best way to approach this crucial query is to simply break the Buckeyes down by position and then add an overall summation of how the parts fit together at the end.
Offensive Line: Believe it or not, fans are going to see a more physical offensive front in 2002. The reason is that if you are an offensive lineman and you are overweight or out of shape, it is much more difficult to get out and block your man. By the time you reach your designated spot or hit the gap in front of a running back, your opponent has already either filled the hole or has simply run around you to disrupt the play. This year the offensive line has shed enough pounds to make even Richard Simmons proud. The added quickness and focus on technique should allow Bryce Bishop, Adrien Clarke, and Alex Stepanovich to get out front and get their hands on defensive linemen and even linebackers who are trying to reach the quarterback or running backs. Though this will undoubtedly result in better rushing production, it will particularly help improve the passing game. Tressel is on record as believing that whatever you do in the passing game is dictated by the efficiency of the offensive line. The offseason conditioning efforts of "the Big Uglies" should translate into bigger and more consistent holes for running backs and more time for Craig to read through his progressions when passing the ball.
Quarterback: Craig Krenzel looks sharp this fall. It is all too easy to forget that what he accomplished in 2002 – he did in his first year as a starter. Now, with a 14-0 run under his belt, expect the heady Krenzel to turn the lessons learned into positive results. Expect improved timing and (with more time from the line) a more varied box score with tight ends and running backs getting the football on a semi-regular basis. As always, when receivers are covered, Krenzel will take off and gain positive yardage and throw the Huskies defense askew. Behind Craig, there is always Scott McMullen. According to Tressel, this fall McMullen "completed about 82 percent of his passes in perimeter, which there's no one rushing, which, you know, we should probably complete a lot. But he was up near 70 percent in team situations." The goal for the passing attack is to average 250 yards per contest, and I believe that is well within their range this week.
Running Back: Maurice Hall and Lydell Ross are finally healthy. While neither is the total package that Maurice Clarett represents, it is simply unfair to compare those two young men with one of the most talented backs that college football has seen in the last twenty years. Who will start is not certain but both will play. Ross has the physical size and the vision to pound the ball up the middle or cut it outside. Maurice Hall adds a speed dimension that will allow for long runs if the offensive line opens the hole. Guilford provides depth and might develop into a fine running back as the season progresses. Considering the injuries striking along the defensive front four for Washington (and the size of their linebacker corps), Ohio State will test the Huskies early and often with the running game. The Buckeyes will try to run the football 35 times or more. If they do not reach 30-35 carries, then it will be an indication that the offensive line and lead blockers are not doing their job and the Buckeyes are being forced to pass to move the football. If this happens, the game becomes a toss-up.
Tight End: With the injury to Ben Hartsock early in fall drills, other Tight Ends saw extensive work. Chief among them were sophomore Ryan Hamby and heralded prep recruit Louis Irizarry. Both showed the ability to get down the field and catch the ball for positive yards. Look for the tight ends to have at least three passes thrown their direction. There is simply too much talent at the position for them not to be a part of the offense. Expect a good deal of multiple tight end sets against Washington. Though Brandon Joe is on the mend (and was tossing/catching passes in yesterday's practice in warm-ups), he is not better. With the assorted injuries suffered by Schnittker, it is likely that Stan White, Irizarry, Hartsock, and Hamby will all see the field.
Fullback: A position that was inconsistent in 2002, there were high hopes this summer when Brandon Joe and Brandon Schnittker both slaved away to improve. Injuries to both derailed the optimism. Unfortunately, the need for a lead blocker has not diminished. For Ohio State to have a consistently excellent running game that converts a high percentage of short yardage downs, there must be either a lead blocker or a back that can engage in deception/misdirection. Schnittker and Stan White will play (Stan as an H-Back). Both must grade out well with their assignments. If they do not, the offense might sputter like an old Model T.
Wide Receiver: The start of 2003 finds the Buckeyes in much the same situation as 2002. Only Michael Jenkins is a proven commodity at the position in the clutch. The number two wideout from a year ago, Chris Gamble, has found his niche on defense. Though he undoubtedly will see the field some, the question remains -- who will step up opposite Jenkins and provide Craig Krenzel with a target he can trust when all the chips are down? Drew Carter is one candidate. His speed and size are a deadly combination, but he must run consistent routes and catch balls thrown his direction. Santonio Holmes and Bam Childress are two other debutantes looking for an invite to the ball. Each garnered headlines as kick returners and receivers in split team scrimmages, but they must produce against the best now. Look for Ohio State to continue to go to Jenkins when they need a play. Jenkins does an excellent job of creating space for himself along the sidelines. Carter and Holmes will both play and are in a competition for future playing time. Look for one of those two to emerge as the season progresses. Carter in particular is a real threat to get deep behind a defense with his speed.
Field Goal Unit: Perhaps this should be placed under special teams, but Mike Nugent scored buckets of points for Ohio State last season. He was "Mr. Clutch" hitting field goals clear up until November – making his first 22 attempts and finishing 25 of 28. Once again, Mike looks good this fall. His 58 yarder in a recent scrimmage is no fluke. This young man has an NFL leg and the accuracy to go with it. Mike will get his chances on Saturday.
How it all comes together:
Against Washington, I think you will see an Ohio State offense that is similar but not the same as the 2002 edition. There will be more passing to the wideouts and receivers. There will probably even be more balls tossed to the running backs. However, Ohio State is not going to become Texas Tech any time soon. Just because Clarett is out does not mean that the Buckeyes should hit the panic button and try to re-invent the wheel that turns their machine.
The first half will probably be spent (by both teams) testing personnel and seeing what will work. With first game jitters for the new defensive starters for the Huskies and Buckeyes, it is possible that there will be some big plays for both offenses. By the second half, both teams will probably settle down and be able to predict with some accuracy what the other might do. It will be then that the mettle of the line and running backs are tested. If they can physically manhandle the defensive front of Washington then the Huskies will be forced to crowd the line and leave Jenkins/Carter/Gamble with man coverage. That could lead to some money plays for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes will likely run the football at least 30 times and probably will have 35+ rushing attempts. This will play into the philosophy of Tressel where you run the ball to set up the pass, and it will also wear on the defensive front seven. Guilford might come into the game in the second half to offer a fresh set of legs against a worn Husky defense.
All of these factors will combine to allow The Ohio State offensive unit to score in excess of 30 points. Four touchdowns and two field goals would not be an unreasonable expectation if they execute as they should.