Expectations are high for Ohio State with so many returning starters, and they should be high. I think national championship hopes are very realistic, with both awesome talent and great senior leadership on this 2008 Buckeye squad. In the past four years I've gotten to know a lot of these guys pretty well throughout their recruitment, and this is a team filled with high character individuals. They have a chance to put themselves squarely in the national championship hunt on September 13th at USC. But what can we learn from a game against Youngstown State? What am I hoping to see?
First and foremost, games are won in the trenches and I'm looking for not only better play, but more depth, out of both units. It is reasonable to expect players to show great improvement in their second year of extended playing time. If that happens in 2008 we just might be watching the Buckeyes play in Miami in early 2009.
The offensive line lost only Kirk Barton off a pretty good unit from last year. Of the four returning starters, Jim Cordle and Ben Person will find themselves under the microscope early on, because of the presence of three highly rated recruits who are expected to see the field. I'm looking for Cordle and Person to accept the challenge from the likes of Mike Adams, J.B. Shugarts and Mike Brewster, and raise the level of their play. And they'd better do just that because the three freshmen are going to be looking for playing time. Add in new tackle Bryant Browning, and it appears that three linemen better be on top of their game right off the bat, or risk seeing their starting jobs in jeopardy.
Normally, you wouldn't consider true freshmen as candidates to be in the regular rotation, but these three aren't normal freshman. I'm looking to see if Adams has totally shaken off the effects of the pre-season shoulder injury that cost him valuable playing time. I'll be watching Brewster to see if the aggressiveness we saw on his high school film translates to the next level. Shugarts is a player that has the potential to be as good, or better, than Alex Boone was as a true freshmen. In short, I want to see if the hype equals the play on the field. Youngstown State is a great game for the three freshmen linemen to get their feet wet and show that they are ready for prime time. They have to pass this test before thinking about lining up against USC.
On the defensive line, I want to see if improved health, combined with game experience, makes the interior guys that much better. Will we be able to see evidence of that against an out-manned opponent? Vanilla game plan aside, I believe the defensive tackles should be able to totally dominate the line play. Does this tell us how they will do against USC? Sadly, no it doesn't, but if you can't own the Penguins, then I'm not feeling good about stopping the Trojans. The hope is that the defensive tackles can supply the inside pass rush that was lacking in 2007. There should be evidence of that ability in the first series, because Youngstown should be forced into passing situations, early and often.
Doug Worthington goes to the kennel for his off-field mishap and I'm not sure how much he plays in this game. That leaves a lot of reps for Todd Denlinger and Dexter Larimore and I can't wait to see these two on the field together. Larimore is my pick as this year's most improved defensive player. If he is all that, then we will see a TOTALLY different defensive front in 2008. Larimore, and the other tackles, need to be better and I have little doubt they are better. Nadar Abdallah is a nice role player who was dramatically better in 2007 than at any point in his career. I have high hopes for Robert Rose and I feel his future is inside. If Rose is healthy, he only adds to the depth of this unit. It can be argued that a healthy Robert Rose could have impacted both losses in 2007. Rose has the potential to be a difference-maker. I don't see Garrett Goebel playing, but the early reviews are very good and Goebel's immediate future might depend on how the coaches see Worthington's status. Willie Mobley's injury and Shaq Rowell's academic issues will prevent these two freshman tackles from seeing any action this year.
At the defensive end spots, I feel the Bucks are in great shape with the return to health of Lawrence Wilson and the added year of strength and maturity for Cameron Heyward. These two can be as good as any pair in the country. Backing them up is the most talked about phenom on the roster- Thad Gibson. Is this the year that Gibson begins terrorizing opposing quarterbacks in obvious passing situations? Saturday would be a good day to start building the legend of "The Predator." I want to see Gibson on the field for an extended period of time, both for conditioning and experience. Keith Wells is another freshman that's made an impact in fall camp. He has more tools than last year's super freshman Heyward, but will he make anywhere near the impact that Heyward did? I want to watch Wells closely to see if he's physically ready to play at this level right now. Watch out for Nathan Williams if this true freshman gets any playing time. He was thought to be a sure red-shirt after missing summer conditioning due to an academic issue, but he has been far better than expected and just might force his way onto the field this year.
In my thinking, the first two games will be used to form depth and gain experience for the young pups. I haven't mentioned the older players for a reason, and that is because their skills won't be tested in the first two weeks at all. I will focus on the bulk of the returning starters in the week of September 13th, because that will be the day that just might define the legacy of many of these great athletes. For now, I want to see how the younger players respond to game situations, because as Dorothy said to Toto, "We aren't in Kansas anymore."
Is it possible to mention freshmen and not write about Terrelle Pryor? Of course not. The greatest roar on Saturday will come when TP finally makes his Buckeye audition. I was there a few years ago when a youngster from Warren Harding made his Buckeye debut. I will never forget the fans screaming "Maurice, Maurice" as Reecie Clarett danced all over Texas Tech. Do I expect Pryor to have the same effect on this team? No, but the fan response will be enough to get the hairs rising on the back of your neck. There WILL be a standing ovation the second Jim Tressel sends Terrelle Pryor out to begin his journey at Ohio State. THAT moment will be worth the price of admission.
I also want to mention the freshman that will have the biggest impact in 2008, and might be the best overall player in this great recruiting class- Devier Posey. Posey is the one freshman that will be too good to keep off the field, both against Youngstown State and against USC. He's THAT good. In fact, I'm going on record and predicting that Posey will score his first Buckeye touchdown this Saturday against the Penguins. Take it to the Bank !!!!!!
I will be posting my pre-game thoughts every Friday before each game. Then on Monday, I will take a look back and see exactly how things played out on the field. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride, because another season of Buckeye football is about to begin.