Seeking to become the first Big Ten team to bring home three consecutive outright conference championships in history, the Ohio State head coach had a commodity desired each season by coaches: a returning, veteran starting quarterback. In fact, it was hard to find a player who was more veteran than Todd Boeckman – now in his sixth year in the program, the senior was often jokingly referred to by Tressel as being in his mid-30s.
But now, one-fourth of the way through what was widely expected to be a national championship-caliber season, Tressel finds himself with a full-blown quarterback controversy on his hands. True freshman Terrelle Pryor, who enrolled for summer classes after being tabbed as the No. 1 prep prospect in the country, has developed to the point where the two are expected to equally share snaps against Troy on Sept. 20 (noon, Big Ten Network).
"Did I think this would happen? No," Tressel said. "Terrelle has been very impressive. There's not many freshmen that I've had with very limited reps have been able to conceptually pick up as much as he has, and he's a pretty special player."
The decision to play both quarterbacks stems as much from Pryor's development as much as Boeckman's lack thereof. After taking a sack from his blindside against USC, it appeared left tackle Alex Boone was to blame for not providing the protection.
According to Tressel, the play was just another example of how Boeckman – a team captain as voted by his teammates – made the wrong read. Afterward, Tressel said Boeckman knew he had made a mistake, which was a good sign.
"He got whacked, he knew exactly the mistake he made, but that's a start," the coach said. "I've had guys before who have come off and say, ‘I have no idea,' but that was an error."
Switching quarterbacks so quickly during a season runs the risk of alienating a team's chemistry both on the field and in the locker room. Junior safety Kurt Coleman did not see it that way, however, stating his belief that his teammates – Boeckman included – simply want what is best for the team.
"The coaches always say the best man is going to play and Todd's a great leader," he said. "He's always going to be our captain no matter what. I know he's helping even Terrelle get better because that's what we've been taught: no matter what, we're going to help our team get better because that's what it's about."
The possibility of Pryor earning more playing time than Boeckman is one senior right guard Ben Person said the Buckeyes have been aware of for some time.
"Coming into the season we definitely knew that was going to be a possibility with Terrelle coming in as a big-time high school player," he said. "We knew he was going to come in and be a big-time player here. If that's what's best for the team – we enjoy it so far because it opens things up a little bit for us – that's what we're going to keep doing."
Pryor is clearly the more mobile of the two quarterbacks. He actually leads the Buckeyes in rushing yards with 129 and is averaging 5.2 yards per carry on 25 rushes – a figure that ranks second-highest on the team. Boeckman has completed 44 of 66 passes (66.7 percent) for 381 yards and two touchdowns against two interceptions. Pryor has thrown 17 passes, completing 11 of them for 87 yards.
Redshirt freshman tailback Dan Herron said his role does not change much when the quarterback under changes, but the offense might change a bit.
"It's pretty much the same," he said. "We just run our offense. When he comes in, it's not really different. When he does come in, it's usually when we spread it out. There have been times when we have the fullback in."
The sentiment for the entire team regardless of position appears to be that the best player will play, no questions asked. Each player made available to the media Tuesday stressed the importance of competition at every position, allowing the top talent to rise to the top.
If that is the case, it could be a case that Pryor is proving himself to be a rare talent.
"It's a great freshman," junior defensive lineman Doug Worthington said. "He's not just your typical freshman, and (Boeckman) understands that and the team understands that.
"Sometimes you have to sit aside and let this kid shine if it's his time."