For Richard "Doc" Tressel, it was a tough three years away from coaching. Yes, it was nice to work with his brother - head coach Jim Tressel - and be a part of a national champion - but nothing can take the place of coaching.
Doc Tressel spent 23 years as the head coach of Division III Hamline University (Minn.) and compiled a career record of 124-102-2.
Now as the running backs coach at OSU, he can't wait for the 2004 season to kick off.
"You don't realize how much fun it is to work with student-athletes in their favorite class," Tressel told Bucknuts.com. "They really pay attention - they want so much to get better at football and be a good football player. So, to be in a relationship with them in that setting, it's the best situation to be in. They're engaged. It's fun. Versus some of the territories I was working with them in before, which they tried to do well - they want to do well in everything - but their favorite class is football."
The star of spring practice was arguably freshman tailback Antonio Pittman. He enrolled in school early and took the backfield by storm, proving that he deserved playing time. But, although some fans and media members might have been taken off guard by his strong play, OSU coaches expected it.
"I wasn't surprised. We were hopeful he would play that way," Tressel said. "Tony really had a better junior year than senior year in high school because he had a turf toe and it was one of those lingering injuries that really affected him. We felt that he'd get that behind him and he'd be right back to the highest level of ability that we recognized in him two, three years ago.
"He certainly stepped right up to that this spring and he was really in a hard situation and that made it even more exciting for him to do well. He was here just three days before he had to practice, while some of the other freshmen that came early had all winter quarter to get to know guys before spring practice and all that. It was like, 'Hey Tony, here you go. You're here. Go to this class tomorrow. Here are your shoes and hat and let's go.' So, he responded to the transition real well, which was neat."
Tressel indicated that some of the older running backs did a good job of taking Pittman under their wings.
"Tony really had some good role models too, which was a positive thing," Tressel said. "Lydell Ross was playing real well, as was Branden Joe and Brandon Schnittker. Mo Hall was right there to help him, even though he wasn't participating. It was the older guys that had a real good spring too and that helped Tony to have as good of a spring as he had."
Ross is the clear starter entering the season and the coaching staff is hoping he can finally put it all together this fall.
"Lydell had a strong spring and he knows better than anyone that he needs to step up this year," Tressel said. "He's a senior and we want our seniors to go out playing the best football of their career. Lydell has been working hard and we all expect a lot out of him this fall. We need him."
And Tressel warns not to write off Hall yet either.
"I see Mo Hall working hard and getting ready to help the Buckeyes this fall," he said. "I would be surprised at this juncture in his career if he decided he wanted to redshirt, unless he's not healthy. But my impression watching him so far this summer is that he's committed to helping us this fall."
Senior fullback Branden Joe might be the most talented player in the backfield this year. He even proved in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl that he can be an effective tailback when called upon. Could the Buckeyes use Joe as a tailback in one-back sets this year?
"It's hard to project, but I think fullback is definitely his strength," Tressel said. "He has the physical talents to be an outstanding fullback. He's a very capable ball carrier and blocker.
"What we need in regard to all those variables that turned so harsh against us last year - injuries and all the things that happened to our tailbacks last year - if those guys (tailbacks) are healthy and playing well, it is going to be hard to steal reps from them. But, obviously we recognize Branden's value. Having him run through a safety a couple of times really softens the secondary up for us. If we can get his 245-pounds to run into a safety, that really ends up being a bonus.
"So, yes, Branden will probably be back there in one-back sets on occasion, but his primary job will be as our fullback in two-back looks."
Tressel is also high on the other fullback in the stable.
"Brandon Schnittker really had an outstanding spring," he said. "Maybe of all of them, he had the best spring. He really had a healthy spring. He was in every winter workout and every spring practice. He did an outstanding job blocking.
"You know, we lost Ben Hartsock and we liked to play a lot of two tight ends. Now, we're like, 'OK, who is going to be the blocker that's going to step up and really allow us to do some of the things that we've done with that H-back/tight end position?' Brandon is now a tight end/fullback and he really did an outstanding job blocking and we have to feel that Brandon Schnittker is a first line player. He's not a backup guy. He's a first line guy."
Tressel likes the fact that his fullbacks are versatile enough to play tight end. With the loss of Hartsock and Louis Irizarry, it's necessary for guys like Schnittker, a junior, to play more than one role.
"Our task is to have the best 22 guys on the field," Tressel said. "Our task as the group of running backs is to make the team feel comfortable that, 'Hey, some of those reps that graduated that were tight ends before, we can take care of those.' I really felt good this spring that Branden Joe and Brandon Schnittker played very well and the team feels like, 'Oh, OK, these guys can do some of those things that maybe we thought we lost by graduation.' So, we made a step that way. So, whether it's personnel changes, or alignment factors, we want to be as strong on the edge as last year when we had Ben Hartsock and Ryan Hamby."
Senior Roshawn Parker will also be in the mix in OSU's backfield.
"Roshawn did a good job for us at tailback this spring," Tressel said. "He held on to the ball. One of the things he had done in some other opportunities was not maintaining the ball leverage that he needed to have. Those mistakes are devastating and he didn't have any of those this spring. He's a knowledgeable guy; he's experienced. He's another guy that I didn't mention that really added to the growth of Tony Pittman because he was a good role model. He does things right; plays hard. I think the spring game went the way it did because he got hurt the first drive. He only got a couple carries and he was the best running back on that sideline."
Another versatile player that Tressel can turn to is sophomore FB/TE Stan White Jr.
"Stan White was a high school tight end and his physical stature lends him more to being a college fullback," Tressel said. "He's another one of those guys that is a line of scrimmage fullback, or H-back, or whatever you want to name that person who, instead of lining up behind the quarterback, lines up next to him, or goes in motion, or whatever. So, there are some guys in the offensive backfield when we're in meetings that say, 'Hey, send me out there. We'll do what you need us to do in that part of the offense, as well as playing fullback and running the ball.'"