Tressel: Thursday Evening Update

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel wants Troy Smith to stay healthy more than anyone. And while this week's game against Indiana could be closer than many expect, OSU has had more than its share of blowouts this year. It has given Tressel opportunities to get backup quarterbacks and other reserve players in the game.

When it comes to the matter of how much to play quarterback Troy Smith in the second half of not-so-close games, Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel receives no shortage of advice.

"Play Smith as much as possible and maintain his Heisman standing" is one school of thought. Others fear injury to OSU's "franchise player" and want to see him pulled as soon as the game is no longer in doubt.

"We don't do whole bunch of discussing of, ‘If we get to a comfortable lead…' because I've never known one of those where you go into the game and you're real comfortable," Tressel said. "And (former OSU head coach Earle) Bruce taught us when we were on his staff, if you're up by 28 or more and you've got the ball with under three minutes to go, then that's somewhat comfortable.

"If you look at our substitution pattern against Michigan State it was 12:42 in the game, which is a long way from three minutes, but we were up by 38 when we scored the final touchdown. After that, I don't think the starters were back in there and that's with the whole fourth quarter to go."

Tressel has proven he is not too concerned about giving playing time to young quarterbacks to get them ready for future seasons, unless they have earned it. In 2003, seniors Craig Krenzel and Scott McMullen played the majority of snaps, even though Tressel knew that either Justin Zwick or Smith would be his starter in 2004 and would be inexperienced.

It's a similar situation this season. Yes, it would be nice to occasionally get a big lead, pull Smith after the third quarter and get Todd Boeckman or Rob Schoenhoft ready for next year (while Antonio Henton redshirts) but the Buckeyes are in the midst of a title chase and Tressel is going to put his best players on the field.

"Justin Zwick would be the second quarterback, without question," Tressel said. "It's still a long season and we are going to need that number two quarterback and we have to continue getting Justin as many reps as we can."

The Buckeyes have had plenty of stressed-filled fourth quarters during Tressel's tenure, but that has not been the case this year. And the coach admits he's not used to being up by 38 on the road against a conference foe.

"It's very unusual in Big Ten play," he said. "We spend most of our time talking about how we're going to come up with at least one more point than they have at the end of the fourth quarter."

Ohio State is playing a total of just seven true freshmen this season. There weren't many available spots entering the season with 17 returning seniors, but Chris Wells, Rob Rose, Ray Small, Ross Homan, Kurt Coleman, Jake Ballard and Aaron Gant are each getting a chance to contribute. Tressel has shown over the years that he likes to play about half of his freshmen and redshirt the other half. This year, 13 out of the 20 players are redshirting, but most of the seven that are playing have integral roles.

"Well, the thing about young guys is all they want to know is, ‘If I'm the best guy will you put me in the game?'" Tressel said. "And I think we've demonstrated since we've been here that if there's a freshman that's better than a sophomore, or a freshman better than a junior, or it's close, we're going to make you battle it out. We're not afraid to play young guys. Right now a guy like Jake Ballard is getting good backup time at the tight end. Part of you said, ‘Would you like to redshirt Jake?' And part of you said, ‘No, he deserves to be in there fighting it out.'

"I think what players what to know is, ‘Will you do the best thing for me?' There might be some other guys where we say, ‘He might be able to contribute,' and Aaron Gant is a great example. We had seen in practice that Aaron Gant could play, he could play. He's just got an innate, instinctual ability to play this game. ‘Well, let's see if we can redshirt him.' All of a sudden Anderson Russell's hurt, case closed, Aaron Gant is playing. He is going to be in the two-deep and he's going to be on two or three special teams.

"We go back and forth, but I think the kids we recruit, I hope we're recruiting guys that have confidence in themselves and that think they can come in and play early. And then when the reality sets in and they see what they are going to have to do to play early and if they can handle that, then I think they're confident and we'll put them in a game. You want to be fair to the team, that's what it's all about. If someone can help the team, doesn't matter what class they are in, we need to put them in the game."

Top-ranked Ohio State (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is a 31-point favorite over upstart Indiana (4-3, 2-1). The Buckeyes and Hoosiers will face off Saturday at Ohio Stadium (noon, WBNS radio) and Tressel has been impressed with what he's seen out of Indiana's young offense, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Lewis.

"Offensively, as Lewis gets more comfortable it helps their running game," Tressel said. "They've got excellent receivers, no one questions that. Their big-play guy is (6-7 sophomore receiver James) Hardy who can hurt you at any moment. If you watch the film, they really have your attention."

Ohio State sophomore tight end Rory Nicol has received praise for his blocking and receiving skills. But he has just seven receptions for 55 yards and one touchdown on the season. However, such is the life as the OSU tight end with so many other weapons on the field.

"We probably don't have quite as many things in our scheme that some people do for our tight end," Tressel said. "We feature guys who have extraordinary abilities and I think Rory is a good pass receiver, I really do. I don't think he's as good a pass receiver as Teddy (Ginn) or Gonzo (Anthony Gonzalez), or Brian Robiskie, or Brian Hartline. So, we do have some things and those that we've had, Troy is disciplined to the point where he'll go to the guy that's open.

"I don't know that it's been anything defensively (that has limited Nicol's statistics). I don't think anyone has doubled our tight end or anything like that because they're too busy trying to double Teddy or Gonzo. But we have some things, and not unlike what we talked about where there is going to be a point in time, perhaps, where a second quarterback has to make a difference in a championship run, the tight is going to have to make a difference at some point. We've just got to have enough of those things ready to see how people are trying to take away stuff that we seem to do more of and if we can have those moments where the tight end can be a big difference-maker, Rory Nicol is very capable."

Senior defensive tackle David Patterson – who missed the Michigan State game with a knee injury – probably could play against Indiana. However, with the big picture in mind and with backups Joel Penton and Todd Denlinger playing so well, the Buckeyes will most likely give Patterson an extra week off even if he's close to 100 percent.

Tressel talked specifically about the play Penton, the senior from Van Wert, Ohio, who received his first career start against MSU.

"Joel Penton graded a winning performance and did an excellent job," he said. "He's been in the rotation and playing in the 18-25 games a game category. I think he was up in the 30's this week. Joel has been a guy, in my mind, as a football player you've seen him improve every year. Great effort guy, great weight room guy, great film-study guy. He's gotten better every year and we've got great leadership with Joel, David, Jay Richardson and Quinn Pitcock up there. And those guys in behind them will tell you that."

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