Five years after his initial recruitment and freshman season at Ohio State, Tim Schafer has found a home. A positional vagabond, he has wandered more (and seemingly longer) than the Spanish Conquistadors.
Recruited as a defensive end along with Joel Penton, Jay Richardson, and Mike Kudla, he found himself taking a number and a seat at the business end of the bench. With Darrion Scott, Will Smith, Simon Fraser, and even Kenny Peterson still on the roster, but a lack of depth at defensive tackle on the horizon, he added weight and dropped inside. The emergence of Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson and the promising (at that time) future for Brandon Maupin, Nader Abdallah, and Sian Cotton led him to the back end of the bench – again.
This time the coaches offered a solution: consider switching to the other side of the football where a lack of redshirting by the previous staff had left them woefully thin. Schafer dutifully moved and appeared to be on the right track. He started five games at offensive tackle before once again, being passed on the depth chart – this time by Kirk Barton.
2005 saw Schafer back on the defensive side of the football and in hot water. Scalded by his actions, he missed two games and didn't contribute much to the cause on Saturdays.
Now, just when most fans and pundits had finally written him off, he has once again appeared – back on offense at the guard position.
More stunning is that he is currently listed first on the depth chart.
To be honest, it makes the brain tired just thinking about all of those twists, turns, and position switches. One can only imagine what it has been like for Schafer, but it has all been worth it to him if he can finally earn playing time and contribute to the team.
"I'm feeling really comfortable and at home right now," he said about playing guard. "For the first four years I really liked playing defense, and I really liked coach Heacock, but it just feels like I finally found my niche. I finally found where I was supposed to be this whole time. I was looking for it, so, it feels good."
With the offensive front expected to be one of the strengths of this team, Schafer and his mates aim to hit or even exceed expectations.
Of course, the expectations were high in 2005 as well until Barton's injury at Penn State derailed Ohio State's offense and led to a loss when freshman Alex Boone and Rob Sims couldn't man the tackle slot as effectively.
"I'm not worried because you could throw any one of us in there," said Schafer of the possibility and the depth chart. "We are all going to be ready and all going to get the job done."
Tight ends coach John Peterson added of the still fierce, ongoing competition, "I think we are still in a rotation mode as far as that position goes. Schafer is definitely one of those guys who is maturing as an offensive lineman. He has a lot of athletic ability and some game experience. That is all a positive. Our goal is to have as many linemen – we are going to need a bunch. Having four or five isn't going to be enough for the season. Having that rotation is going to be helpful down the line."
The reason for this confidence and the possibility of a rotation is not hubris but cohesion. Six seasons after taking over for John Cooper, Jim Tressel and Jim Bollman finally have their offensive line humming along as planned. Of the projected starters Doug Datish, T.J. Downing, Tim Schafer, Alex Boone, and Kirk Barton, three are fifth-year seniors and a fourth is a redshirt junior. Backups such as Jon Skinner, Steve Rhering, Ben Person, Jim Cordle, and Kyle Mitchum have all spent a year gaining their redshirt with only Cordle having spent less than three years in the program.
Playing guard suits beside the other four experienced players suits Schafer just fine.
"Every guy in the offensive line I consider my best friend, my brother whatever—it's just more my style I guess," he said. "When I was a sophomore, I was kind of young and inexperienced, immature and didn't know what I wanted. I didn't know what I was doing, and now I feel like I have a second chance and maybe can do something with it."
Second chances are rare in this world, but now that he has one he doesn't intend on squandering it.
So what does he bring to the offense? Why now of all years for him to emerge?
First, Schafer is no plodding 6-3, 335 guard. In years past it wasn't unusual to see the Buckeyes start a player at this position with a larger spare tire than the Michelin Man. The idea was that a player with great girth is not only hard to get around, but he is tough to slow once in motion. He may not be poetry in motion, but he can, in the proud tradition of Adrien Clarke, move a pile forward a couple of yards.
Schafer, fast enough to have been recruited as a defensive end, is likely to be able to pull and provide offensive play calling options to the coaching staff they are not accustomed to having. Though listed at 6-5, 290, he looks almost thin; he is a virtual blast from the past back to the days of Jim Lachey when linemen were supposed to be able to move and pull and get out in front of the play to block for running backs downfield.
Second, Schafer brings maturity. For a player whose first experience with the media was a bad one when he accidentally blurted out some of the team's preparation for an upcoming game (2004), he has had to (at times) learn the hard way. Experience is a brutal but effective teacher. Where he was not prepared to start during his first campaign in 2004, he professes to be ready to apply himself this time around. He understands this is his last chance, and he has a goal of not just starting this year but perhaps even taking his shot at the NFL.
Finally, he brings versatility. A man who has played more positions than Lenny Harris, he understands the assignments of every lineman on both sides of the line of scrimmage with the exception of center. Check that, he has played every position on both sides of the line of scrimmage except center; he doesn't just understand, he knows from experience. Couple this with Bollman's philosophy of training his players to be ready to go at more than one slot on the offensive front and Schafer is the classic utility player ready to ply his trade wherever needed.
"If someone is going to get hurt you can just throw them in anywhere," he said of the advantages of the Buckeye coaches' approach. "You don't have to worry about right or left or guard or tackle or center. Sometimes it can be difficult going from a left hand stance to a right hand stance, but if you can get over that you will be better off."
Certainly it hasn't hurt Schafer's chances, and it won't do anything but help the Buckeyes this fall as ‘Mr. Utility' prepares to take the field for one more campaign.