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Since the start of the season, running back Antonio Pittman has solidified himself as the No. 1 guy at tailback. This week's magazine excerpt is a story from the most recent issue on Pittman and his hopes and goals for this season.
Headline: Feature Back?
By Dave Biddle
Being the starting running back at Ohio State comes with a lot of responsibility and sophomore Antonio Pittman feels like he is ready to meet the challenge.
All eyes are on Pittman this season as the Buckeyes search for their first 1,000-yard back since Maurice Clarett in 2002. It's no secret that OSU's running game has struggled the last two seasons, but Pittman is determined that 2005 will be a different story.
The 5-11, 200-pound Pittman – a native of Akron – looked impressive in a limited role last year as a true freshman. He rushed for 403 yards and one touchdown and led all of OSU's backs with an average of 5.3 yards per carry.
He enrolled at OSU in spring of 2004, which gave him an early start and made it a somewhat smooth transition to the college game.
"Coming in and going through spring ball last year was a good thing for me," Pittman said. "Now I feel like an experienced player, even through I'm only in my second year. This past spring was my second spring in the program and I was able to just focus on what I had to do to get better. I didn't have to worry about all the little things that you worry about when everything is new."
With Pittman expected to get a lot of carries this year – and with Ohio State's offensive line looking like the best in years – a 1,000-yard season is very much a possibility for Pittman.
"I'd be satisfied with that," Pittman said.
But almost in the same breath, he said that individual accolades are not important to him.
"My goal is just to help the team get to the Rose Bowl, that's my main goal," he said.
Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel is pleased with the progress Pittman has made as a runner. He still has a ways to go, but he's coming along well.
"Antonio Pittman, I thought had a great spring," Tressel said. "We mentioned as the course of the spring was going on we thought he was really growing into the type of back that we really believed he can be. I think he's worked hard in the weight room this summer. He says his weight has been up a little bit. I think that's important to him; not sure how important that is to me. I think he feels strong and that type of thing. But I have great expectations for Antonio."
Running backs coach Dick Tressel is also encouraged by what he has seen from Pittman.
"I'm excited to see what Antonio is going to do this year and I know he's determined to have an excellent year for us," he said. "There's no reason that Antonio can't have a big year for us. He's worked hard and the opportunities should be there for him."
Pittman says he has matured quite a bit in the last year. He seems to understand the importance placed on the starting tailback at OSU.
"Yeah, I feel like I've matured both on the field and off the field," he said. "That's just part of growing as a football player and as a man."
As Jim Tressel said, Pittman put in long hours in the weight room over the summer. He could also be found camping out in the film room from time to time.
"I was just trying to get stronger, study more film and getting in better shape," Pittman said. "That's what I really focused on during the off-season. I'm a lot bigger now. I'm about 200 pounds and I was around 180 last year."
Being humble is not Pittman's strong suit quite yet. Ask him to describe himself as a runner and he compares himself with two of the NFL's top backs.
"I look at myself as a LaDainian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis-type runner," he said. "You just have to watch those guys. Those are my two running backs and that's who I try and follow. I feel like I can run between the tackles, but also take it outside and use my speed. That's how those guys run."
Pittman's father – Marcus McKinnie – was a starting defensive back at Purdue in the early 1980's. However, Pittman did not seriously consider following in his father's footsteps.
"Purdue doesn't run the ball, so it was like, why would I go there, unless I was going to play defensive back," Pittman said. "But I didn't play DB in high school, so it was like there's no point in going there. It was either Ohio State or Michigan, and Ohio State offered first and I was ready to get the recruiting process over, so I committed."
Pittman was asked if his father ever pursued a pro football career following his days with the Boilermakers.
"No, he blew his knee out," he said. "He was the starter before Rod Woodson came."
Pittman's parents split up during his childhood, so there were not many days playing football in the backyard with pops.
"They were together when I was younger, but by the time I was about 8, he was off on his own and I was raised by my mother (Valerie Pittman)."
Money was tight and Pittman wasn't able to do a lot of the things that young sports fans like to do.
"When I was younger, I didn't get a chance to go out much," Pittman said. "I actually stayed in Akron a lot. I never even came to a college game until I started getting recruited and I came on visits. The only college and pro football I watched was on TV."
A Star In The Making?
Pittman's strengths are his quickness and vision. He's a slasher who hits the hole quickly. But could he be the next great running back at OSU?
A total of 17 running backs have reached 1,000 rushing yards in a season at OSU. But only four have accomplished the feat twice: Archie Griffin (three times), Tim Spencer, Keith Byars and Eddie George.
Yes, that's impressive company. And Pittman could join them one day.
"I'm very excited to get it going and see if I'm good enough to be mentioned along with those guys," Pittman said. "This is something I've waited a long time for, finally a chance to start. And not just starting, but knowing that I'm going to get carries – a lot of carries. Knowing that the team is relying on me is a good feeling, and I'm not going to let them down. It's big shoes to fill with all the great running backs at Ohio State, but I'm willing."
Pittman earned his keep, so to speak, with his impressive spring in 2005. If there were any questions as to who would be the starting tailback, he answered them.
"It was just more of showing the coaches what I can do with the ball in my hands a lot more," he said. "Last year, I was getting reps, but it wasn't a lot of reps like I was used to. If it's all on my shoulders, I'm willing to do everything that I have to do to help us. Everything. I mean catching the ball, blocking, returning kicks. It doesn't matter."
Jim Tressel noted Pittman's improvement in the spring, but said producing during the season is the biggest thing.
"I think, based upon spring practice, it's encouraging," the coach said. "But fall is not spring practice. I am confident in his abilities. I think he could be a real good one. In fact, I think he could step out and surprise some people. But, again, he's got to do it every day. That's one of those things we're excited about seeing. Now it's time to demonstrate it."
And nothing will light up a running back's eyes faster than the thought of running behind a good offensive line. Ohio State's O-line is shaping up very well this season, in terms of depth and talent.
"I am very excited to run behind those guys," Pittman said. "It's one of the biggest O-lines I've ever seen. I'm very excited about running behind this line. We've got a lot of experienced guys up there, and I think they're going to make our jobs as running backs easier. Those guys are going to be opening up some holes this year for us."
Pittman was also asked about OSU's new "Shot-Ginn" offense (shotgun-spread formations). It could mean more passing and less running.
"A balanced offense is all right with me," Pittman said.
Pittman says he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield.
"I'm a good receiver," he said. "Catching the ball is no problem for me. It catches teams off guard because most teams don't throw the ball to the backs that much in the Big Ten. So, it will be a good thing for us."
Pittman is also quick to compliment his backups: redshirt freshman Erik Haw and true frosh Maurice Wells.
"Erik is a good back," Pittman said. "People will see that this year. He's a big, fast guy and he's going to help us this year.
"Mo Wells also looks good. He's a scatback like Warrick Dunn. He reminds me of Warrick Dunn."
But if all goes according to plan, Haw and Wells won't see too many carries this year. This could well be Pittman's time to shine.