For the first time in many years, I face a fall with no practice schedules to help make up, no evaluation forms to fill out, no scouting reports to get ready, and no recruiting list of high school players to call on the telephone in the evenings.
These are the tasks and duties every college football coach in America faces this time of year as they prepare their team for the upcoming season.
In my world, these responsibilities have been replaced with analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of various college teams, analyzing the performance of these same teams after the fact, predicting the outcome of upcoming games, talking about all aspects of recruiting and discussing college polls and rankings. Wait a minute! In a lot of ways, it's not a lot different than the last 30 falls. One thing for sure, it won't be boring.
As the Buckeyes begin their quest for the Big Ten championship and beyond, there are many holes to fill due to the graduation and/or drafting of the bulk of talent that led the scarlet and gray to the 2002 national championship win over the Miami Hurricanes.
A record number of 14 National Football League draftees are gone. So is a defensive front that, as a unit, could have been the most tenacious in Ohio State gridiron history. Only Simon Fraser returns as the lone member of a talented quartet that included Will Smith, Tim Anderson and Darrion Scott.
Gone, also, are three full-time coaches: One to the NFL (Tim Spencer), one to a collegiate head coaching position (Mark Dantonio), and yours truly to the business and sports media world.
Perhaps the most immediate necessity for the Buckeyes, in order to be successful early, is a solid kicking game. Arguably, the best place kicker in college football, All-American Mike Nugent, returns. Kyle Andrews who snaps for both kicks and punts also returns. There is no better in the country at long snapping than Kyle. After another season of outstanding punting, the Ray Guy Award winner, B.J. Sander, who had replaced All-American Andy Groom, is off to the National Football League. In the past three years, the punter has also doubled as the holder for extra points and field goals. A much overlooked position, the holder is crucial for consistency in special teams.
The one question on the minds of all Buckeye fans is who will be the guy under center. Apparently, Justin Zwick will be the pick of head coach Jim Tressel. A quarterback is only as good as his decision making in the heat of the battle. Neither Justin, Troy Smith, nor Todd Boeckman are proven in that aspect of the game. Reading and reacting to the blitz and a full out pass rush is how a quarterback is measured. In the long haul, the one that can handle the pressure is the game situation will emerge as the guy.
A soft early schedule will help the young defensive line, punter and quarterbacks mature. The Buckeyes need to have it all together, however, when they travel to North Carolina State. Even though the Wolfpack was hit hard by graduation, it will be a hostile environment in Raleigh on Sept. 18. The Buckeyes need to be ready to play for all four quarters.
Of course, Dantonio will be making his Division I-A head coaching debut with this game Saturday at Ohio Stadium. I have to think that Mark, at least right now, is not thinking about the Ohio State game and the friendships he has here with people in Columbus. None of that is probably on his mind at this point.
This is the first time he will ever take the field as a head coach. Believe me, there are so many in-house things he is attending to. He has to come up with the practice schedule every day. Plus, he has to attend to all the things off the field as well like alumni appearances and all of the media and press obligations of the head coach.
There is so much of that. I doubt his mind is on Ohio State. I'd bet it's on Cincinnati.
Now, as the game approaches, the word I would probably describe it would be overwhelming. Now the reality will set in that he is going to be a head coach at Ohio Stadium on the opposite sideline against one of the top 10 teams in the country, at least in the preseason polls. That would have to be very nerve-racking.
I think he would have to have some apprehension as well. He has not been around his players long enough to know for sure how they're going to react in a situation like they're going to see at Ohio State in the heat of the battle.
Defense is his forte and I'm sure he is going to try and come after Ohio State. More than anybody, he should know that he will have to be aggressive if he is going to have a chance to win the game over Ohio State. He has to know that he can't just play his base defense because they would get blown off the ball. They're going to have to move around and mix it up and come up with a good game plan.
The Ohio State Side
I went through 17 season openers on the staff at Ohio State and I can probably talk about some of the things the OSU coaches are thinking about right now, particularly with such a young team ready to play its first game.
I'm sure they're thinking "Don't beat ourselves." They will have a lot of young kids going out there and a lot of guys starting their first game. They have been in backup roles, some of them, but not as front-line starters.
I'm sure they are concentrating on being good and sound and not making stupid mistakes like jumping offsides. You don't want to make the mistake of turning the ball over. You don't want one of those young running backs to get in there and fumble the ball or have a punt blocked or have bad snaps.
They are going to want to eliminate all the little things where they could beat themselves. With a Jim Tressel team, I'm sure they will want to establish the running game and control the clock so Cincinnati doesn't have a chance to make big plays with its passing game.
And I know Mark has talked about establishing the run for UC. But I am sure they are going to throw the ball and hope their veteran quarterback, Gino Guidugli, can make some plays that allow them to have a chance to win the game in the fourth quarter.
Quick Start Important
As I look at this Ohio State season, I think the key to the season is the first part of the schedule. This will be a different team by the end of the year because of all the youth.
But the crucial thing will be getting off to a good start with these first several games. Their first really big test may be N.C. State. Their toughest away game may be Purdue. (I think Iowa can be a tough place to play, as well, but I think they may be lacking some of the weapons they'll need offensively.)
I think, for this team with this schedule, an 8-3 season would be a pretty good year. It could possibly be better than that. The home schedule, with Wisconsin and Penn State and Michigan coming to Ohio State, certainly helps. They will need to win all of those games to have the kind of year they want to have.
A Different Perspective
I heard Craig Krenzel say last year that it won't hit him that he isn't at Ohio State any more until he sits down and watches that first game on TV.
I'm kind of the same way. I think I really won't know how I feel until kickoff. I have kept myself so busy doing other things and preparing for the season as a member of the media. I haven't had time to stop and think. I'm sure when it is time for that first kickoff it will hit me. I've been doing this for 30 years. It's going to be different being purely a spectator.
The thing I miss the most is coaching the kids. I will also miss recruiting because I loved recruiting.
I know I will miss that challenge every week of going against another competitor. Hopefully, I can channel those things through what I'm doing with the media and my other ventures.
All in all, the season of 2004 can be interesting to say the least. Some old, some new, but certainly not boring!
EDITOR'S NOTE: Bill Conley, an OSU assistant coach for 17 years, will provide insights through columns and Chat sessions on Bucknuts.com throughout the football season. His next column is scheduled for next Wednesday, Sept. 8, and his next Chat session is scheduled for Mon., Sept. 13. Plus, catch Coach Conley on his weekly radio show from 9 a.m. to noon each Sunday morning on WTVN-AM (610).