Coming into the season, there was a lot of talk that Ohio State could possibly have the best linebackers in the nation.
It's difficult living up to expectations like that, but that's exactly what they have done thus far.
Weakside linebacker AJ Hawk (something doesn't sound right when you use "weak" and "Hawk" in the same breath) leads the Big Ten with 101 tackles.
Middle linebacker Anthony Schlegel - who didn't even become a starter until week five against Wisconsin - is second on the Buckeyes with 59 tackles and is getting better each week.
Strongside 'backer Bobby Carpenter actually had his worst statistical game of the season against Penn State with just two stops, but is still third on the team with 58 tackles and has played well all season.
Can they keep this pace up? They will have to if the Bucks have a realistic chance of finishing the season strong. The linebackers are clearly the strong point of the team (with the possible exception of a kicker named Nuge). They are physical, extremely athletic and all play with good instincts. And if they all stick around next year like I think they will, watch out.
2005 BUCKS STACKED?
This has been a tough season for OSU, no doubt about it. But will next year be any different, or more of the same?
The feeling here is that the 2005 Buckeyes are going to be one of the best teams in the nation. Sounds unrealistic right now, but think about it: What impact seniors is the team losing this year? Mike Nugent? Check. Dustin Fox? Check. Anyone else? Anyone? Bueller?
Nope. That's about it.
One major question mark looking ahead to next year is whether Santonio Holmes will return for his junior season. I think he will, but it will be a tough choice. He is the father of two and his girlfriend (the mother of both) is still living with them in Florida.
Presuming Holmes stays, the Bucks will have all the parts in place.
Looking at the offense: Justin Zwick and Troy Smith will be improved next year, and the offensive line - led by center Nick Mangold - will have another year of experience under its belt. Antonio Pittman and Erik Haw will be a nice combo at tailback, while Dionte Johnson looks like a keeper at fullback. And the young WR corps - led by Holmes, Roy Hall and Ted Ginn - will also be much better.
Defensively, the Buckeyes will have everyone back on the D-line except Simon Fraser. Quinn Pitcock is developing into one the best tackles in the Big Ten and he will have a lot of help up in the interior with Marcus Green and David Patterson.
Defensive end might be an issue, but Mike Kudla, Jay Richardson, Vernon Gholston and Alex Barrow could emerge as a solid group.
All of the linebackers return, as well as everyone in the secondary, except Fox. The secondary shapes up to be another strong point with corners Ashton Youboty and E.J. Underwood, as well as safeties Nate Salley, Tyler Everett and Donte Whitner.
On special teams, both kicker Josh Huston and punter Kyle Turano have applied for a sixth year of eligibility with the NCAA. Who knows if it will be granted, but that would be a nice boost for the team.
I know the common thought is, "How will the Buckeyes be any better next year? They will have the same players." But that's not how it works in college football. Players improve from one year to the next and when you have as many returning starters as the Buckeyes will have, 2005 is going to be a good year in Columbus.
MISSED THE BOAT ON PELINI?
It's still hard to figure out why Ohio State didn't pursue Bo Pelini to be its defensive coordinator after Mark Dantonio took the head coaching job at Cincinnati last year.
I'm sure Jim Tressel has his reasons, but what's not to like about Pelini? He is a former Buckeye player, he did a good job with Nebraska's defense as its DC last season, and even stepped in as interim head coach when Frank Solich was fired and led the Cornhuskers to a 17-3 victory over Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl.
Currently, Ohio State has just one former Buckeye player on its full time coaching staff: Luke Fickell. Going after Pelini was a chance to add another Buckeye to the mix, but more importantly, a rising star in the defensive coaching fraternity.
Instead, Pelini is serving as the co-defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach at Oklahoma. You think he wouldn't drop that job in a heartbeat to return home?
KICK/PUNT RETURNS MUCH IMPROVED
One excellent coaching move OSU made in the offseason was bringing Darrell Hazell in. No, he's not an OSU grad (played football at Muskingum) but he has done a good job with a young receiving corps and an outstanding job improving kickoff and punt returns.
If you can stomach it, let's look back on how the Buckeyes fared nationally in kick and punt returns last year. They were 105th nationally in each category - 17.6 yards per kick return, and 6.7 per punt return.
This year, they have skyrocketed to 12th in the nation in kick returns (25.0) and 16th in punt returns (14.8).
Maurice Hall is averaging a 29.2 yards on kick returns, and now holds the OSU record for most career kick return yardage.
Ginn is averaging a cool 26.7 yards on punt returns - on just six attempts. He is averaging one touchdown every third punt return. Those are Tecmo Bowl stats.
Holmes has chipped in on both units. He is averaging 23.9 yards per kick return, and 11.1 per punt return with one TD.
Three punt return touchdowns in the same season? That is impressive. A lot of it is the athletic ability of these players, but the schemes that Hazell has developed cannot be ignored. Ginn had some serious lanes to run through in his return against PSU.
QBs UNDER TRESSEL…
Do a bad job of selling play-action fakes. For a team that runs as much as Ohio State, play action is so important. But when you just "half-ass" show the ball in the direction of the tailback, that doesn't work. You have to sell the fake.
Craig Krenzel wasn't good at it. Neither is Zwick or Smith. There are easy passing yards to be had if the QBs can improve at this. Teams love to run blitz against OSU, and even when they don't blitz, they are bringing linebackers and safeties up at the first sign of a run. But they are also smart enough to recognize poor play-action fakes.
BADGERS DROP OFF SCHEDULE
Was disappointed to see that Wisconsin will not be on OSU's schedule the next two seasons. The Bucks owe them a little something and Wisconsin loses about 342 seniors this year. The Badgers will not be a good football team next year.
Still not sure why OSU's defense uses a soft zone as much as it does. Good teams with good corners play bump and run… at least more than the Buckeyes do. The biggest advantage is you can throw receivers off their routes. Yes, you run the risk of getting beat deep, but how about some confidence in the safeties? And I can't imagine Fox and Youboty getting beat deep very often. They are physical, so they can bump at the line. But they are also athletic enough to run with anyone.
FIRST YEAR QBs in BIG TEN
We've witnessed the changing of the guard at quarterback in the Big Ten this season.
First year starters include: Michigan freshman Chad Henne, Michigan State sophomore Drew Stanton, Iowa sophomore Drew Tate, Minnesota sophomore Bryan Cupito, Wisconsin sophomore John Stocco, and OSU sophomores Zwick and Smith.
Unfortunately for Buckeye fans, Zwick and Smith are at the back of the pack right now, but who knows how things will look in two years when these guys are juniors and seniors.
Right now, Henne looks like the most impressive of the group. Yes, he has been aided by a very good receiving corps, but he has a strong arm and plays with a lot of poise for a true freshman.
Stanton, a good scrambler, was injured in MSU's triple overtime loss to Michigan and did not return. His status is unclear for this week's game against OSU. He was struggling big time early in the season, but really had turned things around recently.
Tate is just a playmaker. A gritty quarterback that finds a way to get the job done. He will end up being one of those guys that is a great college quarterback, but won't make it in the NFL.
Cupito, a native of Cincinnati, has really been the surprise of the group. A forgotten man in the 2002 recruiting class when everyone was salivating over Zwick, he has been very solid for the Gophers this season. Hasn't played well of late, but is already better than his predecessor - Asad Abdul-Khaliq.
Stocco hasn't been asked to do much in Madison other than slice cheese, but has done well in his role. We'll see how he does next year without Anthony Davis, without a great offensive line, and without a great defense, but right now he's getting a passing grade.
WAS ANYTHING MORE PREDICTABLE…
Than Steve Spurrier replacing Ron Zook at Florida? Just thought they'd wait until the end of the season.
FIRST TD FOR JOE?
The 4-yard touchdown run from Branden Joe against Penn State was his first in a Buckeye uniform. That was a little hard to believe when that was announced yesterday. Good to see him finally break through.
Switching to men's basketball for a moment, I'm optimistic about the Buckeyes this season under first year head coach Thad Matta.
Ohio State will have a lot of overall depth and athletic ability and could make a strong run at making the NCAA Tournament.
The downside is that the Bucks have very little depth in the post. It's basically Terence Dials and pray he doesn't get in foul trouble.
Perimeter shooting could also be an issue again, as could team defense. But what do you want to bet Matta gets improvement in both areas?
Bucknuts' own Kyle Lamb will include basketball staff predictions in his next column, so you'll have to check that out. We will be really putting ourselves out on a limb.
E-mail Dave at: firstname.lastname@example.org