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In each issue of Bucknuts The Magazine, we have in-depth features on Ohio State football players, coaches and prospects. We also have analysis pieces on the Buckeyes as well as their opponents, the Big Ten and college football world in general. Plus, we have features on OSU athletes in a variety of sports, including men's and women's basketball, hockey, wrestling, baseball and other sports.
Headline: Big Expectations
By Steve Helwagen
(From Summer 2006 issue)
The Ohio State offense truly went through an evolution in 2005.
The unit that had problems getting first downs early in the season – particularly in losses to Texas and Penn State – had few problems scoring touchdowns down the stretch. The improved offensive showing helped the Buckeyes reel off seven straight wins to end the season.
Much of that transformation was due to the emergence of quarterback Troy Smith, who ended his 2005 season on a real roll.
Smith set a career high with 300 yards passing in OSU's 25-21 come-from-behind win at Michigan. Then, he threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns and also rushed for 66 more yards as the Buckeyes downed Notre Dame 34-20 in the Fiesta Bowl.
So, with the idea that Smith can build on such a strong finish, hopes were high that the OSU offense would keep right on rolling through 2006.
Smith, back for his senior year, is among eight starters due back on the offensive side of the ball for the Buckeyes.
"Fortunately, we do have a lot of people back," said OSU offensive coordinator/line coach Jim Bollman. "The people who have proven themselves need to step up. But there are some holes in there to fill."
Of course, Smith does not represent all of the star power due back on offense. Also returning are junior tailback Antonio Pittman and junior wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez, who all have made their share of big plays in their OSU careers.
Ginn is hoping he and his teammates can light up the scoreboard as they did down the stretch last year.
"We need to bring the team back to where we were at the end of last season," Ginn said. "We'll probably still be a defensive team. We have some good guys over there. We have some young guys coming up who are hungry. We just have to put it together and be a complete team.
"We've got some young guys coming in and picking it up and learning the offense. We just have to keep it going."
One part of OSU's improvement on offense was with the running game: The Buckeyes averaged over 30 yards more per game on the ground in the second half of the year than they did in the season's first half.
"You go back to (the end of 2004) and we had the Shot-Ginn with Ted Ginn Jr.," said senior fullback Stan White Jr. "But as the season went on, we proved we could be a running team with Troy and Pitt. We showed that running is a big part of our offense. For our fullbacks, we just have to show that when push comes to shove, we can line up in two backs and run right at you."
Senior Doug Datish could move from tackle to center this year. He shared some of his thoughts on the offense.
"Pitt did a great job last year and if one of the other guys can come in and step up and help him out, that would be great, too," Datish said. "Pitt did an incredible job for us last year.
"I think Troy, starting with last year, really picked it up. He is just carrying on that leadership role for us. He knows he's the guy. We're just looking forward to helping him out this year. He's always been a great leader for us and now he is really taking that role to heart.
"We want to keep it rolling. We had a nice little stretch there at the end of the year. We'll have some new personnel coming in and we know it's hard to carry that over. But we're looking forward to it."
Under head coach Jim Tressel, the Buckeyes have won largely with their defense and special teams. But maybe, just maybe, that will change with a potentially prolific offense in 2006.
"We have a lot of guys coming back with a lot of experience," said senior quarterback Justin Zwick. "The thing about us is we're continuing to get better every day. We want to get better and we strive to do everything perfect. As long as we keep on that track, we'll put some points on the board, keep the team going and help the defense out as much as possible."
Although Joe Daniels is OSU's quarterbacks coach, Tressel spends a portion of his time tutoring the quarterbacks.
"They're my guys. As long as they don't turn it over, they're my guys," Tressel joked.
Smith became the guy early last season after sitting out the season opener against Miami (Ohio) as the second of a two-game suspension for taking illegal extra benefits from an OSU booster. He regained the starting role from Zwick in week three and held the job the rest of the year.
He ended up having one of the best seasons any OSU quarterback has ever had, completing 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,282 yards and 16 touchdowns against four interceptions. Smith also rushed for 611 yards and 11 touchdowns.
"I have to be an all-around leader," Smith said. "It's not all the time using your voice. It's just stepping up and making something happen."
Ginn, who also played with Smith at Cleveland Glenville, said Smith is taking his game to another level.
"Troy is a great player," Ginn said. "He has a strong arm. I looked at him when we started and he looked great. It didn't seem like he took two months off or whatever it was. He's still a leader and still controls the offense. We expect big things out of Troy.
"There's only one word to describe it – leadership. It's the way he carries himself on and off the field. It's the way he controls the offense on the field. It's the way he controls the offense in meetings. He's just a great leader."
Zwick is waiting in the wings in case anything goes awry with Smith. Sophomore Todd Boeckman and redshirt freshman Rob Schoenhoft are already jockeying for position for 2007.
"All of our quarterbacks look good," Ginn said in the spring. "I can't judge none of them. I like all of their balls. They throw great balls. It's just up to the coaches. They all do a great job."
The 5-11, 195-pound Pittman had a breakthrough sophomore year as he rushed for 1,331 yards and seven touchdowns. He figures to be OSU's first option at tailback, although he missed much of spring practice due to a hamstring injury.
His absence allowed OSU to use sophomores Maurice Wells (5-10, 190) and Erik Haw (6-1, 212) and early enrolling freshman Chris "Beanie" Wells (6-2, 225) quite a bit in the spring. They all showed flashes during the spring, especially Chris Wells – the nation's top prep prospect in 2005, according to Scout.com.
"Beanie has gotten a lot of attention," Bollman said. "We have to remember he is learning which way to go and what to do. It may be unfair to him sometimes with some of the things put on him. But he looks like he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it."
At the fullback spot, it looks like White (6-2, 242) will split time with junior Dionte Johnson (6-0, 234).
"I thought (Johnson) had as good a winter as you could possibly have," Tressel said. "He trimmed down 10 or 12 pounds and ran just under 4.6 in the 40. At 230-some pounds, he has shown he is ready to become an outstanding fullback and special teams player."
The Buckeyes are deep at receiver, despite the loss of top receiver Santonio Holmes early to the NFL draft.
Ginn is the top returnee after he made 51 catches for 803 yards and four touchdowns. Gonzalez (28 catches, 373 yards and three TDs) will move into the split end role.
Backing them up figure to be senior Roy Hall, sophomores Brian Robiskie and Albert Dukes and redshirt freshman Brian Hartline.
"I think the committee sounds pretty good," Bollman said. "A lot of those guys have done some things. We have to make sure we use them to their best ability."
Wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell likes the competition he sees at the receiver spots.
"Roy has done a great job and Robo has done a great job," Hazell said. Right now, those are the two guys who are battling it out. Competition is good.
"They really are hungry. Hartline has not been on the field in a couple of years and Robiskie really wants to play, so those guys are working hard. They are working hard in the classroom and on the field. You're going to like them before it's all said and done.
"We've got some guys out there who can make some plays. I really like how they're finishing right now. Do we have a go-to guy? I don't know, but I like the way they're finishing right now."
Hazell would like to see Hall, quite a specimen at 6-3, 240 pounds, come through as a senior. He had 16 catches for 134 yards a year ago.
"Roy and I talked about this in the off-season," Hazell said. "He's a big guy. He's got to increase his range. He has to play outside his body and use his body to his advantage. If he can do that, I think he's going to be a tremendous asset for us. I think he's got to be consistent. If he can increase his range and play in traffic like ‘Tone did, he can be an asset for us.
"I think he's ready. We'll find out, but he's doing a nice job right now."
Hall added his two cents on the receiver corps.
"Everybody knows about Ted," Hall said. "He's an electric player, probably one of the most electrifying players in the nation in my opinion. You've got Gonzo and then you add 235, with my weight, to that equation. We can get some muscle and some strength out there. Our young guys are coming along.
"A good name to remember is Brian Robiskie. He's just a freshman right now, but he's making great plays in practice. We're looking forward to those young guys lining up next to us.
"Everybody on the field can play every position. Gonzo is playing split end some, I'm still playing split end and Ted is playing flanker and the slot. Gonzo is also playing the slot some some. Brian is playing some at flanker. If every receiver can play every position, we'll be a better offense."
When Ryan Hamby and Rory Nicol were lost due to injuries last year, that opened the door for Marcel Frost to become a starter.
Frost, a 6-5, 255-pound junior, responded by making seven catches for 70 yards, but he transferred to Jackson State before the start of the 2006 season after being suspended for the year. Hamby has moved on to the professional ranks, but Nicol (6-5, 250) is back as a third-year sophomore after missing all of last season due to injury. Sophomore Brandon Smith (6-3, 252) adds depth at this position and the Buckeyes will welcome a pair of freshmen here in the fall in Jake Ballard and Andy Miller.
Datish (6-5, 295) is among three returning starters on the offensive line. He is joined by senior guard T.J. Downing (6-4, 305) and junior tackle Kirk Barton (6-5, 325). Gone are starting center Nick Mangold and guard Rob Sims, each taken in the recent NFL draft.
"With Rob Sims and Nick leaving, we are losing 74 starts between these two guys," Bollman said. "But, as happens every year, there will be a couple of guys who leave. That's part of the process. We're very fortunate to have three starters back with Doug (Datish), T.J. (Downing) and Kirk Barton.
"We have a number of other people fighting for those positions and we are changing a number of guys back and forth between guard and tackle. We'll try and end up with the best five to eight guys who can play.
"Besides T.J. and Doug, Tim Schafer is another senior who has played a lot of football for us and gone back and forth between offense and defense. He's in there fighting for some playing time. Kirk Barton is the only guy in the (junior class).
"We have Steve Rehring, who played a lot of football for us two years ago and, last year, got pneumonia and was redshirted and missed the whole season. Then we also have Kyle Mitchum, Ben Person and Jon Skinner. They are all fighting for time and fighting to contribute.
"In the class after them, we have Jim Cordle and Alex Boone. They were both freshmen last year and we expect them to help us. Jim missed all of last year with a foot injury. He had a great start, but then he missed the whole season."
As the spring ended, it seemed that the line would be Boone (6-8, 325) would start at left tackle, Datish at center, Downing at right guard and Barton at right tackle. The big question was left guard, where Rehring (6-8, 329), Schafer (6-5, 290) and Skinner (6-5, 300) were all in the mix.
It was also unclear how much time, if any, Boone would miss after a drunken driving conviction in the spring. It was possible that Schafer or Rehring could fill in for Boone at tackle if he faced any lingering punishment.
"I think on the offensive line, we have a lot more hidden depth than people may perceive," Datish said. "With Kyle Mitchum, Jon Skinner and Ben Person, even though they may not have played a lot they still got some experience on the field goal team or in some late game situations."
Downing believes OSU's line play should not miss a beat.
"I think you have Kirk at right tackle and myself at right guard," he said. "Doug Datish would be in there at center. Then, the left side is totally up in the air. Obviously, there are some things going with Alex right now that we need to work out. There is a three-way battle at left guard with Schafer, Rehring and Skinner.
"We'll see what happens. I think all three of those guys have proved they can play. We're going to find out. It's competition. I think Steve and Tim could also be candidates at left tackle, too. But hopefully everything works out for Alex. That's going to be a big thing for us this year. He is a heck of an athlete and a heck of a player. We need him out there. Steve has shown he can play tackle and Tim has started games out there. He could jump in there at any time.
"I've tried to take a leadership role to help make these guys better and prepare for this year. I like having that role."