While teams rarely win championships without a stout defense, a decent (though perhaps not explosive) offense is necessary as well. Last year, Ohio State's offense struggled mightily to score points, and its production probably cost the Buckeyes a date in New Orleans. Should fans expect improved performance even with the departure of numerous draft picks?
Strength – Though without Scott McMullen and Craig Krenzel – two talented signal-callers – the Buckeyes are not bereft of talent at the position. Both Justin Zwick and Troy Smith have had the luxury of three full seasons to learn the offense. Both have all the physical tools to be extraordinary. Zwick has solid vision, good touch, and makes great decisions with the football as a general rule. Smith is tough to bring down and has a bazooka for an arm.
Weakness – If you pay attention, you will almost always hear older, experienced quarterbacks talk about how quickly the game moves for young, inexperienced signal-callers. This means that they can all too easily get flustered, tucking the ball to run too early instead of allowing their teammates time to get open. They are also more apt to make poor decisions with football, potentially costing their team a chance to stay in or win a football game.
Opportunity – Though I am no fan of a platoon situation, the Buckeyes have an opportunity to utilize both Smith and Zwick. Each one has extraordinary talent, and with Todd Boeckman coming on to provide a solid reliever if needed, the dire need will not be present were one of the two injured. Putting both Zwick and Smith on the field simultaneously might make it tough for defenses to figure out where the football is going. Additionally, it halves the time opposition can use to prepare for each style of player. When football is a game of inches that might just make the difference.
Threat – Someone please tell me the last time a coach was thrilled to have a young quarterback who has yet to start his first game opening the season behind a young offensive line. When youth is the rule up front and in the backfield, it is rarely a harbinger of a phenomenal offense. Often it is exactly the opposite. Face it, for all the press clippings Smith and Zwick have garnered over the last three years, neither has proven they can win a football game at the collegiate level. That does not mean they cannot or they will not. It simply means they have yet to prove they are in the same league as Craig Krenzel or Joe Germaine – two of the better Ohio State quarterbacks in the last 15 years.
Strength – Santonio Holmes is a proven playmaker. Though he may not be the fastest nor the most physically imposing wideout, he has demonstrated the ability to get open and score. Without question, he has the potential to be the most explosive receiver for the Buckeyes since Terry Glenn. Teams will have to account for him at all times, and I for one expect to see him frequently double-teamed.
Weakness – Aside from Holmes, this unit has not proven itself to be all that strong. Bam Childress is a star in scrimmages but has struggled mightily during games. Roy Hall has the physical size, but may or may not be able to step into the gigantic shoes of first round draftee Michael Jenkins. John Hollins is a senior who might earn playing time this year, but not as a game breaker as much as a possession receiver. Tony Gonzalez and Devin Jordan have yet to see the field. Dareus Hiley was not to be seen this spring. The only players left are incoming freshmen recruits, and it is rarely a good thing if a team has to rely on a player who might not even be 18 yet…
Opportunity – The Buckeyes ran more and more four- and five-wide receiver sets down the stretch in 2003. Only two slots (Hall and Holmes) seem set for the time being. That means two and possibly as many as three other receivers could earn significant playing time. With a more agile offensive line and a (hopefully) improved rushing game, the Buckeyes' offense might be much more lethal with the addition of Devon Lyons and Albert Dukes to the mix.
Threat – If Hall and another receiver do not step up; this passing game is going nowhere fast. Irizarry's loss is a serious blow to the offense as it takes a playmaker out of the pattern, allowing defenses to focus more on the wideouts. Further, if there are injuries to any starters (such as Holmes), the Buckeyes could find themselves wholly dependent upon a first year starting quarterback, a young offensive line, and freshman wideouts.
Strength – Without question, the strongest aspect of this position is at fullback with the multi-talented Branden Joe. The best receiver out of the backfield and arguably the position's finest rusher and blocker, Joe's near-healthy return in the Fiesta Bowl triggered an offensive explosion. Quite honestly, there is no telling how many points the Buckeyes might have scored with he and Maurice Clarett in the backfield last season, but as all Ohio State fans are painfully aware, neither played for the majority of the year. Clarett had a run-in with the NCAA and then OSU (probably costing Ohio State a national title), and Joe was healthy only after the regular season was completed. Another strength of this position is that Lydell Ross is a senior. Once a promising young freshman, he has watched his NFL candle flicker. He has just one more year to prove he can be a durable back capable of playing every down at the next level. If anything will motivate him to be more productive, the prospect of playing for pay in 2005 will. Generally, seniors have their finest years of their career if they stay healthy.
Weakness – Durability. Joe, Ross, and Maurice Hall have all been injury plagued. Add Brandon Schnittker, the backup fullback, to that list as well. Ira Guilford, the third string tailback from a season ago, has been indefinitely suspended and likely will not play for Ohio State again. None of the players on the roster (including the incoming freshmen) have proven they can last a full season as a workhorse back. That could leave the team without a consistent go-to guy in November.
Opportunity –A two-headed monster in the backfield would be just what the doctor ordered for a young line and young quarterback. If teams have to beware of both Joe and Ross toting the pigskin, it will add an element of surprise sorely lacking in 2003. Teams can no longer afford to simply mark out the fullback and figure that the man behind him will get the football. Instead, they must determine who will get the ball, will it be a run, will it be a swing pass, is it a screen, or will neither back get the ball but are merely decoys?
Threat – It is tough to imagine, but Ohio State is in dire need at tailback. At least one of the incoming freshmen trio of Dennis Kennedy, Erik Haw, and Antonio Pittman will play in 2004. If for some reason Maurice Hall's knees are not fully healed, one of the freshmen will be running at least second string. Given Ross' injury history, it is even conceivable that Ohio State will be relying upon a freshman tailback at some point this season for the third time in the last four years. All of that begs the question – I wonder how many blue-chip running back recruits from 2003 wish they had come to Ohio State now instead of assuming Clarett would be the starter until 2005? A depth chart is not always the wisest way to pick a college…
Strength – Though not the size of previous behemoth lines in Ohio State's recent history, this group appears to possess improved quickness. That means when a guard is pulling and leading a back through a gap, the back won't have to completely stop and wait while his lineman lumbers into the hole. That will translate into yardage since the defensive players have less time to adjust and prepare for the play coming straight at them. After two successive rushing attempts, 3rd and 4 is a whole lot better than 3rd and 7 when trying to figure out what play to call.
Weakness – Youth and a possible lack of cohesion. Offensive lines routinely talk about the importance of cohesion. Though several of the younger players have been working together on the second team unit over the last several years in practice, Rob Sims and Nick Mangold have been with the starters. Kirk Barton, expected to man the right tackle, was injured most of the spring and unable to get repetitions next to the other players. All of this translates into a short period of time in which a young line must come together or risk being as leaky as cheesecloth.
Opportunity – The Buckeyes have a chance for the first time in nearly six seasons to put their stamp on other teams because of depth up front. They might actually have the ability and depth to rotate bodies and wear down a defense. The Buckeyes also project to have enough quickness (again for the first time in seemingly forever) to execute screen plays. Though this scenario might cause a few more excitable fans to pass out in sheer ecstasy, imagine what could happen if Brandon Joe received a pass with three offensive linemen out front and tailback Lydell Ross guarding his backside. It could happen.
Threat – Injury. Coaches never want to see offensive linemen go down. Barton's absence hurt the team in the spring. Just when it appeared he was fully recovered, he was injured once again. Were this to happen with Sims or Mangold – expected to be the leaders of the line – it could spell disaster.
Strength – Even without Louis Irizarry, Ryan Hamby looks to be a serious pass catching threat off of the line. Jason Caldwell also has solid quickness and decent hands, having spent his career thus far as a great athlete who has struggled to become a fine football player. Manning the H-Back, Stan White, Jr., has shown excellent hands and a desire to improve.
Weakness – This unit lacks depth going into the fall. Only Ryan Hamby is really ready to start, but Ohio State runs a multitude of two-tight end sets. Irizarry's irresponsible decisions tremendously damaged this team's offense. At least one freshman out of the pair of Rory Nicol or Chad Hoobler is likely to start unless Caldwell or White can prove their readiness. Hoobler lacks the weight and might ideally be redshirted. Nicol is at least physically large enough to possibly contribute immediately, but will he have the maturity or blocking skills?
Opportunity – If the Buckeyes can begin using the tight end more as a weapon, it will take tremendous pressure off of the young line and quarterbacks. Defenses will be less inclined to ‘bring the house' if in doing so they unleash a 6'4", 260lb man into their secondary.
Threat – Injury. Fans will shudder every time Ryan Hamby goes down in a pile. It would have been one thing to have both he and Irizarry with some young players behind them vying for playing time. It is quite another with Irizarry already gone and only Hamby left from what was a strong position with solid depth in 2003.
Overall, this offense has talent, but so many questions remain that I am not certain the widespread optimism seen in Buckeyedom is warranted. Logically, it is tremendously difficult to come up with reasons why this year's offense will be better than the last group when Ben Hartsock, Craig Krenzel, Drew Carter, Michael Jenkins, Chris Gamble, Alex Stepanovich, Shane Olivea, and Adrien Clarke were all drafted in 2004. For those lacking math skills, that group accounts for 7 of the 11 opening day starters for Ohio State in 2003.
I expect the offense to struggle early. Louis Irizarry's loss is going to hurt. He was someone that opposing defenses were going to have to scheme around. With his absence, they will now have the luxury of focusing more manpower on Santonio Holmes and Roy Hall.
Ultimately though, this offense will go as far as its running game will take it. If Brandon Joe, Lydell Ross, and one of the freshman tailbacks can step up and put some bite back into what was an anemic rushing attack in 2003, then teams will have to respect the Buckeyes on the ground. Justin Zwick and the wideouts will then have a legitimate opportunity to showcase their wares through the air.