Calculated Risk Taking

In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers' song ‘The Gambler, "If you're going to play the game boy, you've got to learn to play it right.  You've got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run."

Football coaches have to discern when to take a calculated risk and when to walk away in recruiting.  The line between success and failure is a thin one indeed, and much of it will be determined in this area.  If they take too many ill-advised risks, a coaching staff shows up at the annual coaching convention in search of work because of arrests, flunk-outs, and losses on the field.  If they take no risks and allow other programs to grab all of the highly talented but questionable character/grades athletes, then they will also end up out of work. 

Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

This staff has done fairly well with the risks it has taken in recruiting.  Two years ago, Chris Gamble was not fully qualified but the staff offered and then made sure he worked to qualify.  Consider the repercussions if that "gamble" fails (a lost scholarship but a still deep receiving corps) versus the rewards reaped (a bona fide two way player who is a star at cornerback and wide receiver).  When looked at from the risk/reward aspect any solid investor uses, it is a no-brainer that this was an acceptable risk.  Last year it was Troy Smith who was apparently struggling to gain football eligibility for division I-A football.  This was the same Troy Smith who had dazzled at the Elite 11 Camp for top quarterbacks.  Ohio State had filled the needs of the class and were in a position to take a risk.  If he fails, the staff already had a top quarterback recruit on the roster, but if he made it – then Ohio State would find itself hitting the rare jackpot of landing two top quarterbacks in the same year.  Troy made the cut and garnered an early reputation for brilliant play on the scout team in 2002-03.  On the flip side of that coin both Quinton Thomas and Derek Morris were offered scholarships but never panned out at Ohio State.  Thomas' absence was never felt, but Morris was expected to be a contributor for 2002 and was badly needed to provide depth at a thin position.  The offensive line managed to gut out their injuries, but I am fairly certain that a young Morris would have helped tremendously in November. 

And what about troubled young men?  Should coaches just kick a young man off of the team when they are arrested and immediately recruit another player at their position?  Or, should the coaches try to work through the matter with them and risk not having enough depth if they are forced to revoke their scholarship following yet another poor decision?  It is a tough choice.  Shortly after being hired, Jim Tressel was faced with a decision on Derek Ross, a young man he did not even really know, that had seemingly been in and out of trouble his entire adolescent life.  There he was in the uncomfortable position of trying to restore discipline to the program when Derek was arrested.  Instead of kicking Derek off the team to serve as an example and finding a late signee to replace him at cornerback, Coach Tressel risked a great deal by suspending him from spring practice but allowing him to remain on the team.  Had Derek gone astray then the damage caused by the public relations nightmare and the hole in the roster would have been extensive, but the calculated gamble paid off.  A scholarship was saved and a young man's career course was corrected.  What about Angelo Chattams?  What will Tressel do with the young man?  Will he allow him to stay, serve his penance, and play again if Angelo keeps his nose clean?  Should the staff have just "cut their losses" and recruited a wide receiver to replace him?  As of now, the coaches are willing to gamble that Chattams will be a good citizen and productive member of the team at some point.  Will this cost the team, or will it be another successful risk that yields a jackpot like that of Ross and Gamble?

When coaches recruit, they must account for every scholarship and every player.  They must figure out their odds of success or failure and determine which young men they should offer.  They have to know when taking a gamble will leave the team too thin to compete and when it can only help the team be more dominant.  Play your cards right, and the program will have depth to spare.  Play your cards poorly, and the staff will discover that they might not need to just walk away – they may need to run…

Recruiting Mismatches

  Mismatches on the football field do not just happen.  Coaches are constantly scheming and searching for personnel to take advantage of the opposition.  Consider the professional football league where entire drafts are spent in the attempt to gain mismatches within a team's division that will enable them to make the playoffs or even Super Bowl.  College football is little different in this respect except for the fact that the coaches recruit rather than draft their chosen players.

Ohio State used mismatches in 2002 to help win a national title.  It is no accident that the defensive line was dominant for Ohio State – it was designed to be that way years ago.  It is no accident that the current staff is seeking to keep that advantage by bringing in 10 recruits at that position over the last two seasons.  Nor is it just blind luck that the wide receiver corps at Ohio State is a nightmare for the opposition.  Jenkins and Carter are both able to burn teams with their speed, hands, height, and jumping ability.  When they were recruited to Ohio State it was with this goal in mind, and Tressel is seeking to continue this trend with young men such as Gamble, Jordan, Hall, and Holmes.  The quality of depth at running back for Ohio State in 2002 was surely enough to turn most coaches' skin green with envy.  Clarett was hurt, so the Buckeyes turned to Ross who is considered one of the top prep running backs in the history of High School football in North Florida.  When Ross hurt his toe, the Buckeyes merely turned to Maurice Hall who proceeded to score the winning touchdowns against Michigan and Illinois  Again, the Buckeyes were not just "lucky" to have this kind of talent and depth; all of this is purposeful.

However, it is not enough just to have serious mismatches at two or three positions; this staff is trying to create mismatches at every position on the field.  There will not be another team in the Big Ten that has a tight end with the speed and abilities of Louis Irizarry if he pans out according to his press clippings.  Ira Guilford can play either safety or running back, and you can bet the staff will put him where he most helps the Buckeyes and most hurts the opposition.  While Whitner and Youboty are both clearly slated for the secondary, Hiley and Gonzalez could end up on offense or defense considering their potential brilliance at the wide receiver position.  Curt Lukens is a big, quick safety right now, but he could very easily grow into a raw, lightning fast linebacker down the road that pursues sideline to sideline with a vengeance.  Barton played tight end this past season, but in bringing him in to play offensive line at Ohio State, the coaches are seeking to create mismatches by building a large framed, cat-quick, and mean front five.  In the future, the plan is clearly to no longer be limited in the play calling because of the weight, quickness, or speed of the offensive line.  Frost was recruited as a defensive end, but he (obviously) can play either that position or tight end.  Cotton is multifaceted as well.  Some feel that his best position is in fact on the offensive line even though he was apparently brought in as a defensive tackle.  Where he ends up is anyone's guess at this point, but you can bet that the Ohio State coaches are drooling considering the possible mismatches they can use him to create down the road.

The Ohio State Coaching staff is recruiting football players who are versatile athletes.  This is intentional, not accidental, and it is designed to win games in the future by creating match-ups that opposing teams are not equipped to handle.

In Summation…

Look at this recruiting class and piece it all together now.  Using patience and strategy the coaches examined and weighed risk taking versus potential rewards and are thereby seeking to create future mismatches.  They are clearly positioning Ohio State for long-term success by taking these calculated steps.  When it happens, do not call it luck.  Look deeper.  Take a peek back at this recruiting class and recognize that this was strategically planned from before these young men even graduated from high school… along the lines of winning the lottery twice or evidence that the coaching staff has been strategically planning scholarship offers and allocations years in advance…

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