I've seen UN tribunals that were shorter than this scrimmage.
However, this is exactly what this team needs. First, a longer scrimmage is helpful for conditioning. In a summer that was unseasonably cool, the Buckeyes could all too easily find itself unprepared for the heat it might face in North Carolina come the middle of September. Playing for three hours in simulated game conditions is one way to help. It's not just the heat but the adrenaline that comes with playing inside of the stadium that is the issue. Second, the sheer volume of young players dictates cramming in as many repetitions as possible. In contrast to the situation last fall, this team does not already know who is going to start, and the goal is not simply to get players a bit of work and into game shape without getting them injured.
This year, the coaches are trying to figure out not only who is going to see the field in spot duty, but more importantly, who will start. Battles for significant playing time are raging at safety, linebacker, defensive line, offensive line, running back, wide receiver, and quarterback. Key positions are still wide open. To separate the men from the boys, repetitions under pressure are needed to see who steps up and who proves themselves to be merely pretenders to the throne.
Offense vs. Defense
You hate to say it because it's what you say every time you watch a scrimmage... No matter what happens, you don't know quite how to react. When the receiver is wide open, is it because the defensive back is not playing up to par or simply because he is a fantastic wideout? If the running back gets the corner (as did Erik Haw several times), is it because the third team defense lacks the outside speed to stop him - or is it because he has that kind of game breaking speed that will merit playing time. Is the offensive line better at getting a push up front, or do the young defensive linemen need to focus on holding the point of attack?
A few items that can be said about this win by the offense:
- The first team offensive line compared to last year's first team offensive line looks like the 4x100 USA track team. They are noticeably quicker off of the football.
- There are three quarterbacks who could play in a pinch. Not two. Three.
- Santonio Holmes is going to be a living nightmare for defensive backs and coaches this fall. He is going to merit special attention from opponents as he is currently the only certified game breaker on the OSU offense.
- The depth on the offense is pushing these young players to get better quickly. That is something that has been sorely lacking in previous seasons, especially up front.
Rory Nicol. Get ready to hear that name quite a bit this fall. In no way is this designed to be critical, but Louis Irizarry has to be absolutely ill. The Buckeyes have not one, not two, but three quarterbacks that are more than willing to hit the tight end on a hot route. Nicol saw quite a bit of action and was singled out by Tressel for praise following the scrimmage. Physically, he is holding his own on the line, and when the football comes his direction, he catches it. The most impressive part of Nicol's performance is that it has largely been against the first and second team defensive units.
Ted Ginn, Jr. While he saw a number of snaps with both offense and defense, expect Ginn's earliest contributions to come on special teams. His natural athleticism can simply take over, and he won't have to think. He simply must react and take care of the football.
Erik Haw. Haw showed excellent speed today in reaching the corner multiple times. Nearly scoring on a 34-yard run, he later commented, "It was an inside run. The linemen did a good job of collapsing the middle so I just bounced it outside. I saw daylight; they teach you to run to daylight." His only glaringly negative play came when he coughed up the football. Trailing by a slender margin, the offense looked ready to punch the ball in for a score. Instead, Haw did not secure the football, and Sirjo Welch made him pay for that mistake by punching it out and ending the drive. Haw also displayed a fairly nice set of hands, catching several short passes. Like Todd Boeckman, Haw's challenge will be putting together this kind of performance against the first string defense instead of the third.
Sirjo Welch. Sirjo brought the wood on more than one occasion today. Not only did he force a fumble from Haw, but he also broke up what looked to be a perfect pass and reception by Todd Boeckman to Jordan Hoewischer that would have had the offense knocking on the door of another touchdown. Instead, Welch reached around and stripped the ball, preventing a first and goal from the 5. He looks to be the kind of guy who is simply around the football.
Dionte Johnson. In the absence of Brandon Schnittker and Brandon Joe, Johnson played a number of snaps this afternoon. Two items that are the most encouraging are (1) that he seems to want to be involved in contact and (2) his frame looks to be the right fit for a Buckeye fullback. Johnson might not see much of the field in 2004 unless there is an injury, but he probably will see a whole lot of it in 2005.
Chad Hoobler. Here is another young pup that showed his teeth instead of merely growling. When on the field, he was consistently around the football. His biggest moment of the day came with an interception on a Boeckman pass. Hoobler will undoubtedly redshirt unless the coaches want him on special teams. He needs a year in the strength and conditioning program, but he is clearly a keeper.
Antonio Pittman. I continue to like the vision Pittman displays when given a chance to run the football. Though he did not break for any long runs, he displayed nifty moves. Pittman's performance in the spring likely puts him ahead of Haw right now, but don't be shocked if both play this fall. With two senior tailbacks, the Buckeyes need to have at least a "pair" ready for 2005 and a "spare" who will likely come in the form of an incoming recruit with the foresight to see the opportunity in Columbus for a tailback.
Todd Boeckman. It seems strange to be listing him as one of the "freshmen", but that is exactly what he is right now even if he is not playing like it. Boeckman continues to show incredible poise when pressured. He does not easily give up on a play, which can be both a blessing and a curse. He had several passes that should have been picked off in addition to Hoobler's interception. On the other hand, he showed nice touch on the ball and excellent field vision. He waits until the last possible moment to give his potential receivers time to get open, willingly absorbing the punishment from rushing defenders. The fact that he has been consistently hitting his tight ends and receivers when under pressure is a promising sign that he grasps the offense; he knows where to throw the ball and when.
Truth be told, I still expect Boeckman to redshirt in 2004. The coaches will of course make whatever decision is best for the team, but this would enable them to put two years between he and Zwick/Smith as well as give him another year of preparation. A word to the wise though - Boeckman may not be satisfied simply sitting and watching Zwick for two or three years. He wants to play and has his sights set on the starting position.
Marcus Freeman. As with Boeckman, it rings wrong to label the young man a freshman. Not only does he not play like one, he has been with the team since the spring. In any other season, Freeman might have been vying for a starting position. In fact, on probably eight of the other Big Ten teams, he would start this fall. Freeman is not just going to be good; he is already good. His biggest enemy is simply the depth chart this year as Schlegel, Hawk, D'Andrea, Matthews, and Carpenter are all top shelf talents. However, expect Freeman to be heard from in the not too distant future.
"He's going to be a sleeper," said Santonio Holmes. "Everybody's going to fall back and sleep on Roy Hall, but he's going to do a lot of good things for this team." Stepping into the shoes of Michael Jenkins is not easy. In fact, combine that with Hall's high school press clippings and the physical comparisons to David Boston and it might just be that expectations are unrealistic. Yes, Hall has yet to show the promise consistently that his athletic talents will allow, but he is working toward that end. As the scrimmage progressed, Hall became more and more a factor. In fact, Hall's run after the catch down the left sideline was one of the more physical ones I have seen by a wideout not just in recent practices but in college football as a whole the last few years. Defensive backs bounced off of him like a pinball machine in an arcade. He almost broke it for a touchdown, quite literally leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
What does he need to take it to the next level? According to both Santonio Holmes and Coach Darrell Hazell (in separate interviews) - "Confidence." They both believe that once Hall gains the necessary confidence, he will be a sight to behold. Right now Holmes sees a receiver who, "goes out and does the little things the coach asks for, and he tries not to make a lot of mistakes. He's just never had the opportunity to get out there and showcase what he has, but now he has the opportunity. It just takes time for confidence."
The "Other" Receivers
Clearly, with nearly 180 plays in a scrimmage and 73 passes, there were other players who made at least as large of an impact as Roy Hall - even if their yards after the catch were not quite so spectacular. Devon Lyons made a nice reception on a pass with Boeckman under immense pressure to release the football. He and Boeckman teamed up a couple of times for nice gains. Ted Ginn, Jr. first dropped a pass that looked like a short receiver screen and then caught a couple others. Though it looked like one play was doomed for negative yardage or perhaps just a short gain, Ginn threaded his way up the field for several yards by effectively using his blocker. Bam Childress continues to be feast or famine. Though he had a flat out drop in the scrimmage, he had another play where the quarterback was able to get him the football in space in the defensive secondary. Childress abused the defensive backs to gain additional yardage. He passed out heaping cups of humiliation. Devin Jordan caught a couple of passes from Todd Boeckman. At the risk of sounding like a broken record player, one was while Boeckman was under extreme duress from the defensive front seven while the other was in the face of a rush by Alex Barrow. Santonio Holmes caught the only touchdown of the day for his unit. Only a short gain, it was still a solid play. Justin Zwick found himself racing from the pocket when two defensive linemen broke through to begin the chase. Keeping his composure, he looped back toward the line of scrimmage and watched for receivers to come open. Holmes had continued to work to find an open spot in the secondary and was rewarded with a touchdown pass. Anthony Gonzalez and Albert Dukes also caught passes in the scrimmage. Probably the most conspicuously silent receiver of the top six in the depth chart was John Hollins. Most of the passes however were short routes due to defensive pressure - so fans should not be overly concerned with the lack of long completions.
Ryan Hamby continues to shine. He is fairly confident in his job status (and why shouldn't he be, given the depth chart?) but is not taking anything for granted. "I'm out there - everybody's out here fighting for a job. You can't just come out here and think, ‘the job is mine, I have it locked up.'" His play this afternoon was reminiscent of Ben Hartsock's, and that's not an accident. Hamby sees him as someone to emulate. He wants to be known as the same kind of player (blocking and passing) before he leaves, and he's not shy about saying how much he appreciates the example left by his former teammate.
Stan White, Jr. White is quietly making a push for playing time this fall. He appears to have found a home as an H-Back and caught multiple passes in the scrimmage. The litmus test will come on game day however as White's number was called a good deal in scrimmages last fall as well. If he plays, look for him to cause about the same type issues for a defense as Brandon Joe - though perhaps without the carries.
Jordan Hoewischer. Hoewischer might just fool around and earn himself a scholarship if he keeps this up. This is more than simply a thin depth chart. He will not be confused any time soon with Louis Irizarry, but make no mistake - Hoewischer can play. At 6'4", 250, he is large enough to hold his own up front but moves fairly well when in the secondary. Only a redshirt freshman, he has put on a show over the past several practices that the media have been allowed to view. He will need to take his game to the next level, but if he continues to work and improve, he will find the field. If not this year, expect to see him down the road.
Tackling. It's nice to make a big hit, but no way does Roy Hall rumble for 20 yards if someone wraps his legs. Instead, multiple defensive backs aimed for the chest and paid for it as he left a string of bodies in his wake. Some were multiple offenders this afternoon. Defense is not about hitting. It's about tackling. You can bet the players are going to hear that this coming week.
Despite the prolific number of passing attempts by the Buckeye offense, the front five in each unit (ones, twos, and threes) seemed to struggle a bit protecting the quarterback. Of course, it doesn't take someone with a Mensa membership to tell you pass protecting is the most challenging facet of offensive line play. In fact, it is unusual when a young lineman can step in and be adequate here (let alone excellent). What is more encouraging is the sheer mobility of the probable starters. This should allow (and did today) a greater variety of running plays. That in turn might just help improve the woeful offensive numbers from a year ago; when you can run - it's much easier to pass the football.
T.J. Downing, Kirk Barton, and Tim Schafer continue to jockey for the right tackle position. Schafer was the first to rotate into the game (though that may not mean anything) with the other two following. Not having viewed the film, Tressel could not say whether one distanced themselves from the others with their play this afternoon.
Schafer spoke with the media and discussed his rise from the depths of the defensive charts to fighting for a starting position on the offensive line.
"It's going good," he said. "I'm learning plays. All last year was a learning year for me, learning the plays. This year I'm ready to go out and prove myself. All three of us are great offensive linemen. We're all going to battle and make each other better. All three of us are really good friends" Last year, "the coaches approached me and asked if I wanted to move. They said, ‘you can be a good defensive lineman or you could be a great offensive lineman.'"
For now, Schafer is working the hardest to master pass blocking and hoping to see the field in 2004 and beyond.
With Mike Kudla missing, Jason Caldwell and Jay Richardson played well. Jason Caldwell at defensive end comes as a bit of a surprise, but he seems to have found himself a home. Hamby seems impressed by his former fellow tight end thus far.
"Sometimes it's a little unfair because I come to the ball and this guy knows what we're running," Hamby said. "I think he's a good defensive end. He gets off the ball real quick…I think he is going to do alright over there. He's made some plays in camp."
Indeed he has. Already running with the second team, don't be shocked if Caldwell is not part of the rotation sooner than later. Jay Richardson might finally be ready to fulfill the physical promise coaches detected when he walked on campus two seasons ago. That would be fantastic news for the Buckeyes, who are in need of someone who can be an offense wrecker at the position with the departure of Will Smith.
While all three had their moments (good and bad), I do not see the depth chart changing from this scrimmage. The only possible alteration might come if (or perhaps when) Troy Smith is caught from behind by the most unexpected of players - Todd Boeckman. Hampered by injuries his senior year in high school, a good many panned the scholarship offer as the Buckeyes merely keeping their word to someone who might not contribute. 18 months later, that couldn't be further from the truth. Boeckman is making noise. Justin Zwick is clearly still the starter on this team and proved it with his opening drive for a touchdown. He didn't play all that many snaps and rightfully so. How disruptive would it be for the offense if Zwick were knocked out for the season with an injury in this scrimmage?
Winning the Scarlet Jersey
Maybe it doesn't seem like that big of a deal for the fans, but it is important to these players. It's a matter of pride, and if there is anything a 105 man roster of 18-23 year old athletes has - it's pride and a healthy sized male ego. As a result, you can bet the offensive unit is reveling in their victory tonight. Said Hamby, "Every day you go into practice and see who has the Scarlet jersey on, and that means something. We beat you. The defense knows. The defense knows. I think it's a very big deal. We wouldn't play the game if it didn't mean something."
Just prior to the start of the scrimmage, the punters launched footballs downfield. Matthew Ciepiela continues to display a nice leg. When he gets into a kick - it sails downfield. The issue with him is one of consistency. Like B.J. Sander early in his career, Ciepiela hits a number of kicks off the side of his foot. Kyle Turano lacks the distance of the other punters in the competition, but he has tremendous hang time and is consistent. Josh Huston looks like he is about to nail the lid of the coffin shut but then shanks one or drops a cleanly snapped ball. He has the leg strength necessary but just has to be mentally focused. Tyson Gentry shares the bright future award with Ciepiela. His kicks have nice hang time, and he has a strong leg. The key is - say it with me now - consistency.
With the kick scrimmage closed and the final practice open to the media coming on Monday, it remains a mystery who will ultimately claim this open position. Don't be surprised to see:
1. The coaches rotating punters the first few games to see if one player can handle the pressure better than others.
2. Situational punting. Turano hit an absolute beauty in just this kind of setting. Punting from the opponents' 47, the punt returner was forced to fair catch the ball at the 10 or watch Ohio State gunners down it inside the 5.