8 pawns, 2 Rooks, 2 Bishops, 2 Knights, and a Royal Couple.
It is an ancient game. People in India and China were playing forms of the game in the 6th century, long before Muhammed walked the sands of the Middle East. Stretching minds across the millennia, it forces patience, strategy, and calculated risk taking. Each participant probes the opposition in an attempt to produce a mismatch that they can use to strike and win the match. Like every other game, it has changed over the centuries, and I would submit that perhaps "chess" as it is commonly thought of has been altered again.
Football is chess.
There are 22 pieces on a marked field, both sides taking turns with the football. Each one has its conventionally accepted moves. There are nine pawns (offensive and defensive linemen). There are 6-8 skill pieces (wide receivers and defensive backs) that can be used to make different moves depending on the scheme and down situation. Each offensive backfield has its own royal couple in the tailback and quarterback, and the Tight End easily functions like the Knight. Three linebackers fulfill the role of the Rook by charging across the field vertically and horizontally to fill gaps, blitz, or pursue the play sideline to sideline. Just as in chess, every player has to be accounted for, and the two controlling their pieces (coaches) seek to create mismatches that favor them.
But the similarities between football and chess go way beyond merely the X and O portion of the game. Recruiting is also a chess game. Coaches must carefully review and consider their moves before they make the scholarship offer, calling the recruits but never taking their fingers off of the piece. If necessary, they must be ready in the blink of an eye to adapt to the moves of the opposition and reorganize their strategy. Gambits either allow a program to get ahead in the talent game, or they backfire and leave them behind…
Patience, strategy, looking to create talent mismatches down the road, and calculated risk taking are integral parts of recruiting. Take a look at this class a little closer, and I believe you will see some interesting items that are revealing of this staff's acumen in these areas.
This staff is not going to reach on a young man. They are not about to panic and offer marginal talents even if the depth chart is thin. Consider an abbreviated list of offensive linemen Ohio State did not pursue from their own back yard this season (Insiders national rankings provided).
o Tom Anevski – Ohio Oline - #86 – Boston College
o Dan Pribula – Ohio Oline - #73 (reportedly devoting himself to track)
o Mike McGlynn – Ohio Oline – Pittsburgh
o Mike DeLuca – Ohio Oline – Pittsburgh
Offensive linemen and other position players from Ohio signed with Illinois, Boston College, Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Syracuse, Louisville, and Maryland, and a host of other division I-A universities, but not one of these young men were even offered by OSU. Contrary to the traditional standard operating procedures for most coaches, they refuse to hand out legacy scholarships or make headlines just for public relations purposes. Nor are they concerned about any possible public outcry caused by this approach. They have a plan and will patiently stick to it. They are comfortable enough with their current strategy to patiently wait for next year before acting rashly. If fans have issues here, it is because of a lack of patience with recruiting and a void in their ability to trust a coaching staff that just took Ohio State to its first unanimous national title in 34 seasons.
Another reason the Ohio State coaches were so patient with the offensive line position is the upcoming talent in Ohio's junior class. Take a gander at a publication like Ohio's Future Stars when it starts rating the state's top prospects. The junior class possesses multiple offensive linemen who are worlds better than anything this year turned out in-state. Their speed, footwork, quickness, and overall raw athletic abilities clearly possess greater upside than the senior class of 2003. By not sending out scholarship offers in 2003 they not only saved slots for next season's bumper crop but also sent a message. If you want to play offensive line for Ohio State it is not enough to be merely big, mean, and as slow as a tank, you must also have athleticism or the Buckeyes will pass on your participation in the program.
Further, Ohio State did not actually need offensive linemen in the class of 2003. Counting Coleman and Barton as offensive linemen the Buckeyes will have 14 "big uglies" this fall. Since the necessary depth is obviously present for 2003, offers were withheld from questionable talents so that the Buckeyes do not have 3-4 wasted scholarships. Instead of being stuck with 3 bench warmers whose best asset for the next 4 years is their collective ability to raise the team graduation rates, Ohio State will be able to offer young men who can contribute to winning way on and off the field.
Perhaps most important is this willingness to patiently wait (as opposed to panicking) helps the young men. Maybe it would have assuaged the more rabid fans to see a couple more offensive linemen in this class. Maybe it would have provided a nice ego boost for a local community and its High School football coach. However, it is not profitable for any young man with aspirations to come pursue a football career at Ohio State when the coaches know he will never see the field. Why not hurt their feelings a bit on the front end (because Ohio State never offered them) rather than crushing their dreams? Why not allow them to go someplace like Pittsburgh, Boston College, or a Mid American school where they might start and enjoy their career instead of knowingly allowing their than their dream of playing college football die a slow and painful death on a bench in the Horseshoe?
This coaching staff has a plan. Perhaps the details are not easily apparent, but it is there. You do not reach the heights they have in only two seasons without an intricate scheme designed to bring success. Unfortunately, I have no red phone on my desk that is wired to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. So instead of chatting with coach Tressel about the nuances of his plans, I believe that by examining who was (or in this case was not) offered and where Ohio State loaded up (positions).
Who Was Offered…
Ohio State clearly has some criteria for gaining an official offer. In past years, a young man whose grades stunk worse than road-kill skunk would be given a shot at a scholarship. If he did not make it, then he could go to Fork Union, enroll as a prop 48, or even continue taking his ACT/SAT tests before enrolling. Whether it is an official Athletic Department policy or a higher standard of the coaching staff, the Buckeyes are passing out more conditional offers. They recognize that if a young man is not willing to work on his grades before coming to Ohio State, then they are not likely to stay eligible once they arrive. Fill a class with academic question marks and you are testing the fickle fates and inviting disaster for your program. If the staff sees progress toward eligibility, then perhaps they will make the offer, but the days of multiple poor students being handed a scholarship are over. Another message is being sent loud and clear; if you want to play for Ohio State or have your players play for Ohio State – grades are not optional, they are a priority.
Where Did Ohio State Load Up…
Ohio State loaded up at the Defensive Line and Secondary positions.
For starters, it appears that these two positions were primed to lose the most following the season. The defensive line lost Peterson and Thompson but could have lost Will Smith and even Darrion Scott had their draft status been better. The secondary suffered the losses of Doss and Nickey and appeared to have lost McNutt as well (though that may not be the case now). As a direct result the Buckeyes landed an incredible group of athletes in Whitner, Hiley, Youboty, Gonzalez, and Guilford to both replace and upgrade the secondary positions. Peterson and Thompson will both probably make an NFL roster soon (Peterson may be a first round draft pick), but Patterson and Maupin have the same sort of upside to their games. Toss in Frost and Cotton, and the Ohio State defensive line looks very deep and extremely athletic in the future.
However, the sheer glut of players at these indicates this is not just about replacing lost depth. It illustrates an emphasis that should not be overlooked. In today's game, the two most critical positions are defensive back and defensive line. Great linebackers are a luxury, but a solid secondary and defensive line are critical. Not surprisingly, the coaches recognize this and are strategically positioning Ohio State to have the best units in the Big Ten on the line and in the secondary. So long as the defensive line and secondary are second to none, then coaches can fill in the linebacker corps with a couple of very solid players and perhaps one star. A defense thus organized is nearly unstoppable. You cannot pass against them because you do not have the time to throw (defensive line), but even when you have the time to wing the ball no receivers are open (secondary). Since you cannot pass you must run, but the running game fails miserably when the defensive line and blitzing linebackers plug all the gaps and stop the running back in the offensive backfield. In short, this staff is seeking to build a defensive wall that makes the one that existed in Berlin during the Cold War look like a chain-link fence.