Tressel is noticeably impressed with the job done by Northern Illinois head coach Joe Novak since taking over the program in 1996. Novak's career mark is 54-60, but he took over a struggling program and in recent years has turned the Huskies into one of the top mid-majors in the country. In recent seasons they have defeated the likes of Alabama and Maryland, and gave Michigan all it could handle last year in a close loss.
"Most of you have done, I'm sure, plenty of reading about them and know the excellence that Coach Novak has brought there," Tressel said. "In my head coaching career over the last 20-plus years, there have been a few programs that in my mind have done really extraordinary things over time. Some people have come and gone and flashed and so forth, but people like Bill Snyder at Kansas State did an extraordinary job. Barry (Alvarez) up at Wisconsin came in and did an extraordinary job taking over situations maybe that at the moment weren't wonderful. And I think Joe Novak has to be packaged in that same group. He took over a team that lost 20-some games and was really struggling for an identity."
Northern Illinois has one of the best offensive tackles in the country in senior Doug Free (6-7, 312) who is projected to be a first-round pick in the 2007 NFL draft. The Huskies also have an excellent running back in senior Garrett Wolfe (5-7, 175) who is the leading returning rusher in the country after averaging 175.6 yards per game last year. Tressel was asked specifically about Wolfe and if he could compare him to other backs the Buckeyes have faced.
"You know, he's shorter than some, so I guess you can say (Mike) Hart from Michigan, that type of thing," Tressel said. "(Darren) Sproles (from Kansas State) was in a little bit different system. Wolfe is on a zone run team. Sproles was in a split back, a little bit more of the gun stuff and that type of thing, but I don't know if we've played against a guy like Garrett Wolfe, which will make it an even greater challenge."
Even with the opener just a few days away, there are still several defensive players battling for jobs. The players that open the season as the starter might not be the same players that are starters by midseason. Tressel thinks that the Buckeyes will shuffle several defensive players in and out of the game early in the season until they settle on a set starting lineup.
"I think we will," Tressel said. "First of all, A. J. (Hawk) wouldn't leave the field last year, whether you tried to put a guy in for him or not. And there were some guys that… Nate Salley didn't come off the field much. Ashton Youboty didn't come off the field much, you can go down the list. I think we're going to have a chance to roll a little bit more. We've always rolled pretty good in the front. I think that's just the nature of that position. I think you may see a little more substitution when it comes to the back seven, and I think for two reasons: one, to find out for sure who should be ahead of whom and secondly, we think we have a decent number of guys that are capable and we'll see how they do when they get their opportunities."
The Buckeyes have had the luxury of having veteran and talented kickers since 2002. But this year, redshirt freshman Aaron Pettrey will open the season as the starter and will be backed up by sophomore Ryan Pretorius. Tressel gave his take on the situation at kicker.
"Really, the last four years, we've had a known entity," Tressel said. "Maybe Josh (Huston) wasn't quite as well known going into this past season as some might think, but we'd seen him in practice for five years, so we knew he was good. And of course Nuge (Mike Nugent) in sophomore, junior, senior year, he knew what he was doing.
"This will be a little like 2001. We have new guys, have a little bit of a competition going on. Aaron Pettrey will get the first opportunity, but we've told them we'd like both of them to have opportunities in this football game, which puts a little pressure on the offense to get close enough for field goals and extra points and those kinds of things, and puts pressure on them to make sure we have more than one kickoff. But we want both those guys to go out there in front of everybody and just see how they do."
Tressel was asked just how close of a call it was at kicker. Did it come down to the special teams scrimmage last week when Pettrey was 9 of 9 in field goals?
"I'm not sure there's as much separation when you say it just came down to, I'm not sure there's as much separation as one might think," Tressel said. "Kind of like in the Northern Illinois quarterback situation, that thing could have gone either way as you listen and it just so happens that (Phil) Horvath gets the first shots out of the gate and it's a long season. And I would say the same thing for the kicker. Aaron gets the first shot out of the gate, but it's a long season, consistency over time, passing the test of time is what being good is all about. So, Aaron has the first shot out of the gate and I hope he does well and I hope Ryan gets opportunities and we'll keep evaluating as we go."
The Buckeyes appear to be extremely versatile offensively. They can spread it out with three and four receivers in the shotgun, or they could go power-I and run a smash-mouth offense. Tressel definitely has plenty of options this season.
"We would like to be able to apply pressure in all those ways," he said. "We would like people to be nervous about us running by them. We would like people to be nervous about us pounding them. We would like people to be nervous that we might run the option at them, we might run misdirection, that we have a good controlled passing game.
"There's not much we don't want to be, and I think there's two reasons that we have that philosophy. One is we think it helps our defense over the course of springs and preseasons, the more different things we can do, it helps them prepare. And two, we think it applies a lot of pressure defensively from a preparation standpoint, and then obviously playing us in the game, once we get a handle on how they've decided to look at us, and so not unlike our defense, I don't know that we know for sure who we are right now. Everyone talks about all those defensive guys we lost, but Santonio Holmes and Nick Mangold and Robbie Sims, they were part of our offense, so we have a lot to prove over there as well."
Tressel was asked if freshman tailback Chris Wells will play this Saturday.
"Oh, certainly," he said. "Chris Wells, I think, has had an excellent spring. I thought he had a very, very good camp. He's really hungry to learn what we're doing and I see him constantly asking Doc Tressel and asking Troy Smith and Antonio Pittman to clarify things. And if he looks around and if it's not one of the normal guys he asks, he might ask me, or he might ask Joe Daniels. You know, he wants to know exactly what the score is. And I thought after a weekend off especially, just watching him yesterday, he looked even quicker than I've seen him in the spring and fall and I think he's looked awfully quick."
Another player that Tressel is excited about is junior wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. He has been one of the most explosive players in the college game the last two years, but this year he might take it to another level.
"I think he progresses every day and I think he's a totally different receiver than he was as last year began," Tressel said. "Again, because he's had more experiences. He's seen the things that people do. He understands what the people were doing to focus on Santonio Holmes and that's why they were playing such and such and he's very aware that some of that focus could be on him and he may be seeing some different things than he's seen in the past and I think he understands the game. But there's only one way to understand the game, that's play it, and I think he's coming along."
Tressel is all about the team concept. But he doesn't have a problem with the fact that OSU is running Heisman campaigns for Smith and Ginn.
"It's part of the modern game, there's no question about it," Tressel said. "I think it's part of the tremendous interest that has grown in the sport. It's right now our ticket interest and that type of thing is unbelievable. The amount of interest in people watching on television and so forth is incredible, some of which is because they intimately get to know someone chasing records or someone being considered, so that's not a bad thing. As long as it's left within those confines. It really has nothing to do with the team and its goals, but we'd like to believe that the better the team does and moves towards their goals, then most certainly individuals' goals perhaps could be attained as well. And if the team doesn't do well, there won't be a whole bunch of discussion of those individual awards and our guys are aware of that."
There has been a lot of talk about how far Smith has come in terms of film study and reading defenses. Tressel calls the plays for the Buckeyes, but just how much freedom will he give Smith to call audibles at the line of scrimmage?
"Anytime it works, he can do it. He's got total freedom," Tressel said, eliciting laughter from reporters. "That's why we always used to say with Craig (Krenzel). Between every series he'd say, ‘Get the play in sooner so I can change it. I need more time.' We do a significant amount of checking from run to run, pass to pass, pass to run, some formational type things. You line up in a formation and the QB puts us in the best situation. We'll have a significant amount of that.
"I think what we do have from an offensive standpoint is how guys demonstrate what they're capable of doing, you just keep adding that to their repertoire. That's what's fun about watching a quarterback develop. You do the same with linebackers and secondary. The more they've shown what they can do and they can master, then the more is in their whole package. And we'd like to think that our package can grow, but only at the pace that the rest of the people can do it. You can't lose sight of the fact that all 11 people have to do it."
The Players' View
Smith was asked the same question that was posed to Tressel: How much freedom will the Buckeyes' senior quarterback have to call audibles at the line of scrimmage this season if he sees something he doesn't like?
"I think I will have the right amount to do that if there is an adjustment there that needs to be made," Smith said. "But the staff game plans so we won't have to get into situations like that. I put all my trust into the staff to put us in situations and play calls that will pretty much be the right plays. Sometimes during a course of a game you're going to have to make adjustments though and those adjustments will be made."
Smith also commented on being named one of OSU's captains for this season. It was a foregone conclusion, but it still feels good to him.
"Man, that's like a dream come true," Smith said. "There were a lot of people through the early stages of my career here and through the later stages of my career in high school that told me I would never be doing some of the things that I'm doing now. And this is a tremendous honor and it's a very, very strong act of humility and pride and passion that I have for the guys here who selected me. For them to be able to look at my in my eyes and think that I would be a formidable leader to lead them this year says everything in the world. It speaks volumes."
* Senior center Doug Datish was also honored to be voted captain. He joins Smith, and defensive tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson.
"It's incredible," Datish said. "It makes you feel that you have the respect of the team and the coaches and you play a big leadership role and it's just a great feeling to be part of the tradition of the captains that have been here."
Datish started at left guard in 2004, and started at left tackle in 2005. But he doesn't seem to mind starting at a new position again this year.
"I like center," Datish said. "I'm learning on the job a little bit, but I think any position you play you constantly learn things. Different techniques and different things that work well, and don't work well.
"I've actually played center longer than any other position to be honest with you. I've played center here for three years. I was Nick's backup for two years, while also starting at guard or tackle. So, anytime Nick would be out of practice, I'd be in there at center. It's kind of comforting to know that I've played center for so long. But then again, you don't get experience until you get experience, if you know what I mean. I won't know until we play the games, but right now I feel very good about it."
And being able to play so many positions is something that will only help Datish's football career after he leaves OSU.
"Yeah, Coach Bolls (offensive line coach Jim Bollman) really goes a great job of teaching versatility," Datish said. "Every time there is a young guy, they think it's a pain – I thought it was a pain – that you have to play everywhere. But after a year it kind of clicks in and you are able to just switch in and out."
Like most everyone else, Datish thinks the Buckeyes could have a very good offensive line this season. But he won't know for sure until he sees how the group will mold together.
"I think we can be as good as we want up front," Datish said. "We've got the talent. Offensive line is all about cohesion. If we can be a cohesive unit, then we will be successful."
Teleconfernce Wrap-up *
Tressel also met with the national media today via telephone for the year's first Big Ten coaches weekly teleconference.
There was of course some talk about Ohio State's opener against Northern Illinois.
"I think anyone who's ever been in a match with the Huskies understands how good of a program that is," Tressel said. "Joe Novak's done a tremendous job there. They're excited. We have eighteen outstanding seniors who are entering their final year, seventeen of which are fifth-year guys. So they've certainly given a lot to our program, and we're anxious to get them out there on Saturday."
Perhaps the key player on the Huskies that Ohio State will need to stop is running back Garrett Wolfe. Wolfe, a preseason All-American who stands at just 5-7, rushed for 175 yards per game in 2005.
"There's no question about it -- if he can control the tempo of the game, that makes it a very, very difficult football game," Tressel said of Wolfe. "He's one of those small guys who is so explosive and has so much balance. He reminds me a little bit of the Sproles kid out of Kansas State who we played the year he had 1,800 yards. He's a good receiver out of the backfield; he's smart and he's a veteran kid. It hasn't mattered who Garrett Wolfe has played against, he's gained a bunch of yards. Without question, that's going to be a big challenge for our guys, and we just cannot allow him to control the tempo of the whole football game.
"We face good running backs week in and week out. I think his blend of explosiveness and his extraordinary balance -- they do such a good job at what they do. Joe Novak has established a program and an offense who 'We are who we are and here we come -- stop us if you can.' They've had great running backs, and he just is an excellent one in a great line of runningbacks. He's just so explosive, never gets knocked off his feet. He kind of hides in there because he's not as big as some guys, and that big offensive line, so that poses a little bit of a problem as well."
Wolfe will bring a unique challenge for Ohio State's defense, which is filled with young, inexperienced talent. Tressel was asked if he felt the defense would take time to develop this season.
"It better not take too long, because we're facing Garrett Wolfe and company," he said. "So we better be ready to go and we better learn from our mistakes play to play, series to series. We need to be a good defense in game one."
Tressel was also asked his thoughts on the progress of the defense so far.
"We feel good about the progress our defense has made," he said. "I think they made steady improvement through the spring practice, and then on into preseason, they picked up where they left off in the spring. We don't have the game experience that you need. We don't have experience against the other styles of offense; they've been playing against Ohio State for 40-some practices.
"But I feel good about them. They're young, and they've got some good veterans up there in the front in Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson and Jay Richardson and Joel Penton that hopefully can do a good job leading and help give the confidence to the rest of those guys -- the new linebackers and the new secondary -- to get on their feet."
With the defense being so inexperienced, Tressel was asked if he felt the offense would be doing anything differently or increasing output from previous seasons to help compensate.
"I hope we haven't been withholding anything offensively in years past," he said. "Our primary job as an offense first and foremost is make sure our defense never gets in bad position. The first task of an offense is to create field position, and then obviously we need to create points and then maybe even create tough field position for our opponents. I don't know that we'll do a whole bunch of different things philosophically. We have some veterans on the offensive side who hopefully will continue to grow and become even better than they are. I'd like to think that will help the whole, but we won't make a conscious change in what we do."
The offense will be led by senior quarterback Troy Smith, who will be perhaps the team leader in 2006. Tressel was asked his thoughts on the luxury of having an experienced quarterback.
"It's always good to have an established leader, especially one under center," he said. "Quite honestly, we as coaches fret as much as anything about 'Ok, who's the next guy and is he getting enough reps,' all those sorts of things. Unfortunately, coaches aren't really ever settled in, as you will. But we feel good about the progress Troy made in 2005, and he's had an excellent spring and and very, very good preseason. We're anxious for him to have a great year."
Fans and media alike have already started looking forward to next week's No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in Austin, Texas. Tressel was asked if he was concerned the Buckeyes might get caught looking ahead.
"The reality of our situation is there are so many new players, they're nervous as can be to get out there and play for the first time with a little different role than they've had in the past," he said. "It really hasn't been a problem. We have a pretty good group of kids who know they need to get better everyday. We know how tough our schedule is; we start with Northern Illinois and on to Texas and beyond. It hasn't been hard for our guys to be focused."
As the Big Ten teleconference is an opportunity for media from across the country to speak with Big Ten head coaches about any subject, questions unrelated to upcoming opponents or past week's games often get asked.
One topic this week was the switch to a 12-game schedule. Tressel was asked why, unlike other teams, Ohio State did not include a Division I-AA college on their schedule this season and if it was in the cards for a Division I-AA team to join the schedule in the future.
"It's part of the equation, Tressel said. "As they talked about a 12-game schedule becoming part of reality, there were a couple things we wanted in place in our future scheduling. One was we always want to have a marquee intersectional series going like the one we have going with Texas, and the next one we have coming up with USC, followed by Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech, and the likes. The second thing is want to make sure we always have seven or eight home games, because we have 36 sports here at Ohio State, which is the largest athletic department in the country and the largest budget, so we need home games.
"Then the third thing was we wanted to make sure that our instate partners have a chance to join in some of the financial windfall of the 12th game situation, and one of them happens to be I-AA, Youngstown State. Outside of them, I don't think we'll entertain the thought of a I-AA, but they happen to fit in to our situation, which is wanting to have a lot of home games and wanting to be a good partner in our home state."
Tressel was also asked about the national championship picture and the fact that it seems wide open without a clear favorite.
"It's interesting about the national championship battle," he said. "Really
even though there's some people who think there's a clear-cut favorite over the
course of various years, there really isn't. You're going to have to play
extraordinary football to make your way into that game. I think there are a lot
less teams with as many people returning in in their starting lineups... I
think it's just a factor that there are so fewer returning folks on the top ten
teams from a year ago, but in my opinion, there's never a clear-cut favorite."
The weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference takes place each Tuesday at noon and will continue up to the final week of the regular season.