In a word, they are what football is all about. The team that creates more of them most often will win. Offense, defense, and special teams - the coaches pour over game films, burning the midnight oil in search of even the slightest advantage. Players spend hours scouting opponents, looking for that one move which will give them the edge. Exploiting mismatches is the difference between the play that goes for 5 yards and the one that ends up a 75-yard touchdown.
Just how valuable is this? Frank Beamer is hailed as a special teams guru; his teams have blocked more kicks than any team in the NCAA since 1990. This happens because Beamer has an eye for detail, and that translates into mismatches. On one occasion several years ago, Beamer had noticed the opposition's long snapper always moved his left foot backward first in previous games. The result? Beamer ordered his punt blocking unit to overload the left side of the long snapper, and when the ball was snapped the Hokies knocked him off balance, streamed up the middle, and blocked the punt. The punt block altered the course of the game, and the Hokies won.
In the case of the Ohio State offense this fall, one possible area that people might not expect the Buckeyes to look for a mismatch just might be the offensive line. Yes, they are young. Yes, the team lost a tremendous amount of NFL caliber talent. However, the coaches seem quietly confident that this line (though smaller than previous groups) can handle what is ahead of them. They even seem to relish the possibilities with a quicker, more athletic line.
In his June press conference, Jim Tressel's commented on the entire offense, "I think the thing I like the most about what we are doing offensively is that we are playing fast. We have to keep playing fast, and the only way to keep playing fast as it gets more complicated is know more. We are going to have a great preseason and continue the knowledge base of what we know and what we know when it is really full speed to be able to do that very quickly. So, we'll do that. And, we need to gain experience. We'll have 28 practices."
"They're not quite as big, but they're not small by any means, and a lot of them are guys who have been around here a couple years learning what is going on, getting stronger, getting bigger," remarked offensive line Jim Bollman. "I think they all did a real good job in the winter and spring working real hard. They have a great attitude about the upcoming season…There's going to be a few of those guys that just need to gain a little bit more experience, and I think as they do they will be ok."
Nor are the coaches simply optimistic about the fresh faces. Though coaches are often loath to hand out individual compliments where starting positions are still in question, offensive line coach Jim Bollman opined, "I think that Nick Mangold and Rob Sims who are both guys we need to count on with the offensive line both did very good this spring…. There's still a lot of competition at other spots and guys that are doing a good job, and I think will be ready to perform more than adequately."
So, while fans are pensive about the 'new' starters, the staff might not be viewing this in the same light. For the general public, these players represent the great unknown. Maybe they heard about them when they were recruited. Maybe the fans heard they were a high school all American or 'the next Orlando Pace,' but since coming to Ohio State a good many have been redshirted or have labored in anonymity behind future NFL draft picks. For the coaches however, the new linemen are familiar faces. "I think that I feel pretty good about some of the new guys - or quote - 'new guys," said Bollman. "There's a lot of guys who have been in the program a couple years now learning what's going on who will end up playing a lot of ball for us, and I think we also have a chance to have some depth on offense."
That depth has been hurt a bit with the injuries to Kirk Barton - who had been penciled in as a future starter by many shortly after his arrival in Columbus. Injuries halted his progress early in the spring and just when he appeared to finally be healthy, he suffered a sprained ankle in the final scrimmage at Ohio Stadium. According to Bollman, "He's got to work harder to get back into the mix. He missed some time and only had one week of practice. That hurt him some, hurt us some. That's something that we'll both have to work to overcome."
In other words, all is not peaches up front. The coaches are concerned about a lack of experience and the need to build cohesion for this group. They are all too cognizant that having a new quarterback behind a mostly new line is not the ideal situation. They do have some jitters, but they are within reason.
Speaking of Bollman and the offensive line, Tressel said, "I think he's anxious, and I guess I'm speaking for him, to go into camp knowing that there's still more competition ahead. They showed some good things in the spring. We have 3 or is it 4 linemen coming in? Four - I guess 3 ½. Rehring has already been here so three more…I think he feels good. I think he does, but I know I do feel good about the group and having a chance to have a good offensive line and good deep offensive line."
And perhaps therein lies the key. It's not simply that this line has the opportunity to execute a wider range of running plays with their improved quickness. It is a question of depth. For three seasons, the Ohio State offense has found itself crippled because of a severe lack of depth on the offensive line. In 2001 and 2002, there were not even enough scholarship offensive linemen left by the previous staff to allow the team to field a first and second team. Against South Carolina on January 1, 2002, the Buckeyes were so thin that they literally had only four healthy scholarship players at the position. They were forced to start a walk on, not because he had beat out everyone else, but because he was the best of what was left. In the fall of 2002, Ohio State coaches burned a year of eligibility for Rob Sims and Nick Mangold simply to enable the team to patch holes when others went down or needed to sit a spell on the sidelines. 2003 found a slightly better situation for the team, but it was still far from ideal; any team that must start multiple true sophomores and rely on redshirt freshmen for depth is hurting.
So what will happen? Honestly, no writer, pundit, or fan can be certain at
this point. The coaches themselves probably are not sure what they will have on
September 4. Just don't be surprised if the coaches are not concerned. They seem
to like what they see in the young front so far and are undoubtedly working on
ways to use their talents to exploit the opposition.