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July 25, 2003

On paper, anyway, this Ohio State football team could be more talented than its immediate predecessor. The question is, can the 2003 Buckeyes duplicate the accomplishments of the 2002 squad?

Ohio State returns 18 starters from a year ago, including quarterback Craig Krenzel, who is 15-1 as a starter. Additionally, two-way sensation Chris Gamble returns, as does sophomore tailback Maurice Clarett. Gamble may well be the best all-around player in college football. Clarett is the best tailback!

All 11 starters return on offense. The defense must replace five starters, but the six returnees are of all-star caliber, especially up front, and there is a plethora of talented young players ready to step in and plug the vacancies created by graduation. Throw in All-America kicker Mike Nugent, who set nine school records last year, and it is easy to see why expectations are high in Columbus.

And it is not just Buckeye fans who feel that way. The Sporting News in its College Football Yearbook rates the Buckeyes’ offensive line as the No. 1 unit in the nation, the offensive backfield as No. 2, the defensive line as No. 3 and the receivers and special teams as No. 5. That publication also rates the Ohio State coaching staff as No. 2 in the nation.

With an array of talent that includes split end Michael Jenkins, offensive linemen Alex Stepanovich and Shane Olivea and the imposing defensive line trio of Tim Anderson, Darrion Scott and Will Smith, numerous preseason publications have tabbed the Buckeyes as their choice for No. 1 heading into the 2003 campaign. The only problem is, Ohio State is the defending national champion. The 2002 version of the Buckeyes literally came from out of nowhere to post a brilliant 14-0 record that culminated with a 31-24 double-overtime victory over top-ranked Miami in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

How do you top that?

The Buckeyes did everything right last year: They won on the road, they won the close ones (seven games by a touchdown or less), they stayed relatively healthy, they made a minimum number of mistakes, they had great senior leadership and terrific chemistry. They were a team in every sense of the word, and they played from start to finish every time they took the field.

After battling injuries last year,
Maurice Clarett hopes to be
at full strength in 2003.

If the Buckeyes are to repeat this year, something that has not been done since Nebraska won back-to-back titles in 1994 and ’95, they will need to be more than just good on paper. They will also need to do all the other little things that they did last year. Those intangibles are the key.

“Our biggest challenge is being aware of the difficulty of our challenge,” says head coach Jim Tressel, last year’s national Coach of the Year. “We are proud of what we accomplished last year, but our emphasis now has to be on how much better we need to get this year.”

Unlike a year ago, when the offense was as green as green can be, especially at the skill positions, and the O-line had a hard time finding five healthy bodies to put on the field for the season opener with Texas Tech, the 2003 offense appears to be set. There is talent and depth at every position.

In the scrap-iron tough Krenzel, the Buckeyes have a proven leader, whose strong-suit is knowing how to win. There is nobody better when the game is on the line.

Krenzel’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Michael Jenkins on fourth-down at Purdue last fall may well have been the play of the year in college football. Without it, the Buckeyes would not have been in the championship game. In the latter contest, his 17-yard pass to Jenkins on fourth-and-14 in the first overtime kept the Buckeyes’ hopes alive when it looked like their bubble had finally burst.

Craig Krenzel is 15-1 as a starter.

A molecular genetics major and an academic All-American, Krenzel threw for 2,110 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, while completing 59 percent of his passes. The 6-4 red head also ran for 368 yards and pair of touchdowns and was the leading rusher in the Fiesta Bowl where he scored a pair of touchdowns and was the offensive MVP.

Krenzel took most of the snaps last year. But senior Scott McMullen, who completed 25 of 31 passes (80%) for 315 yards and a pair of touchdowns in 2002, is a proven performer who can step in and get the job done should the need arise. Additionally, redshirt freshmen Justin Zwick and Troy Smith, each of whom threw for more than 200 yards in the spring game this past April, are outstanding young prospects.

The wide receiver position features Jenkins at split end and Gamble at flanker and includes a talented group of backups in veterans Drew Carter and Bam Childress and redshirt freshmen Santonio Holmes and Roy Hall.

Jenkins had a breakout year in 2002, finishing the season with 61 receptions for 1,076 yards and six touchdowns. The 6-5 senior – blessed with speed, size and great hands – was the Buckeyes’ “Mr. Clutch” last year. He heads into his senior year with 110 career receptions and a fanciful 18.8 yards per catch average.

Gamble finished the year as the team’s second leading receiver with 31 catches for 499 yards and an average of 16.1 yards per catch. His 57-yard grab in the Fiesta Bowl was the longest reception of the year by a Buckeye. A two-way starter from the midway point of the season on, Gamble, who also returns punts and kickoffs, played in 100 or more plays in each of the last four games. That number might go down this year, especially in the September heat, but when the game is on the line, No. 7 will be on the field.

In Carter, the Buckeyes have a burner that will keep defenses honest. Childress is an elusive game-breaker with the ability to turn a short hitch into a long touchdown.

The coaches are anxious, too, to see Holmes and Hall in action. Both were very impressive last year as members of the scout team and then in the spring game. Holmes is a home run threat and is highly regarded by the coaching staff. Hall, at 6-3 and a solid 228, could also play tight end from time-to-time.

When the Buckeyes button up their chin straps and run the ball, their arsenal includes a trio of ground hungry tailbacks in Clarett, Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall.

The 6-0, 230-pound Clarett combines speed and power with an insatiable desire to excel. He rushed for 1,237 yards and 16 touchdowns last year as a true freshman, despite missing five games with injuries.

Clarett was at his best in the big games, rushing for 175 yards against Texas Tech in the opener and 230 against nationally-ranked Washington State two weeks later. Bothered by a stinger that greatly lessened his effectiveness late in the season, he carried the ball 20 times for 119 yards and a touchdown in the win over Michigan. He also scored a pair of touchdowns, including the winning tally, in the Fiesta Bowl.

Ross and Hall give the Buckeyes unparalleled depth at the running back position. Both can put up big numbers and have proven so in key games. With Clarett injured at Cincinnati, Ross started and had a personal best 130 yards rushing. The Buckeyes needed every yard, too, in a 23-19 win. Hall, more of a scatback than the other two, scored the winning touchdown against Michigan, skirting around right end on an option play that propelled the Buckeyes to a 14-9 triumph. He has an extra gear that allows him to blow by defenders.

Branden Joe and Brandon Schnittker give the Buckeyes two dependable fullbacks. Joe is the returning starter, but Schnittker played extensively last year and is a fine player. Joe has greatly increased his strength since the bowl game and should be much more of a physical presence this year. The fullback is primarily a blocker in Ohio State’s offensive scheme, but both Joe and Schnittker possess good ball skills.

In stark contrast to a year ago, offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, who also serves as the Buckeyes’ offensive line tutor, has a battle-tested group of veterans to lead the way up front.

The five returning starters – left guard Adrien Clarke, left tackle Ivan Douglas, center Alex Stepanovich, right guard Bryce Bishop and right tackle Shane Olivea – are all seniors. As a group, they have combined for 110 starts.

Not only are the returnees experienced and big – their average height and weight is 6-4 and 315 – they also are versatile. Stepanovich, who is being mentioned as a candidate for the Rimington Award, can play guard and, in a pinch, could fill in at tackle. Bishop, Clarke, Douglas and Olivea (an Ouland Trophy candidate) can play guard or tackle.

For depth, the Buckeyes have Adam Olds at left guard, Robbie Sims at left tackle, Nick Mangold at center, R.J. Coleman at right guard and Mike Kne and Doug Datish at right tackle.

Sims and Mangold played extensively as true freshmen a year ago and are exceptional young players, who will challenge for additional playing time this year. The highly thought of Coleman and Datish were redshirted last season as freshmen, while Olds has made enormous progress after coming off hip surgery. Kne is a transfer, who played in the jumbo formation last year and always gave a solid effort. Redshirt freshman T.J. Downing, who has shifted from tight end to tackle, is another player who should see playing time.

Tight end Ben Hartsock, a second-team Academic All-American last year, rounds out the starters on offense. The 6-4 senior, who will be in his second year as a regular, is one of the top tight ends in the Big Ten. He has played in 38 games the past three years and has 18 career starts to his credit. Primarily known for his blocking ability, he also is a fine receiver and has averaged 9.l yards per catch during his career.

Sophomore Ryan Hamby and redshirt freshman Stan White Jr. give the Buckeyes excellent depth at tight end. Senior Jason Caldwell also is in the picture.

“We have a veteran offensive unit,” says Bollman. “Our goal this year is to be better and more consistent in everything we do. Consistency is the hallmark of a good offense.”

On the other side of the line of scrimmage, defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio must come up with five new starters. But Dantonio, an absolute master of his trade, has a solid nucleus to build around and, as noted earlier, there are a number of outstanding young players who are waiting to step in and take their place in the spotlight.

The Buckeyes’ defensive line is
regarded as one of the best and
deepest in college football.

Any discussion of the OSU defense has to begin with the front four, which a year ago combined for 49.5 tackles-for-loss and 24.5 sacks. With postseason honors candidates Smith (12.5 tackles-for-loss last year), Scott (a team-best 8.5 sacks) and Anderson (a veteran of 23 starts) all back for their senior years, the only new face up front will be junior Simon Fraser. A key reserve the past two years, the 6-6 Fraser will step in at rush end, with Scott sliding over to tackle as a replacement for senior Kenny Peterson. Marcus Green and Quinn Pitcock at the tackle spots and Joel Penton, Jay Richardson and Mike Kudla at the ends make this one of the Buckeyes’ deepest positions. Green, who has lost 35 pounds and is in excellent shape, is a junior. Kudla played last year as a true freshman. The other three are redshirt freshmen.

The linebacker corps has lost All-American Matt Wilhelm in the middle and speedy Cie Grant on the outside. But steady senior Robert Reynolds (62 tackles last year) returns at the other outside spot and veteran Fred Pagac Jr. (27 career games) is expected to take over in the middle. Pagac elected to have shoulder surgery prior to the Fiesta Bowl in order to ensure a healthy start for the 2003 season.

Sophomore A.J. Hawk will replace Grant. Hawk played in every game last year and finished the season with 26 tackles. He is an outstanding young football player with a penchant for making plays (14 tackles in the spring game).

Sophomores Mike D’Andrea and Bobby Carpenter will back up Pagac and Reynolds, respectively, and junior Thomas Matthews will lineup behind Hawk. When he isn’t with the offense as a tight end, Stan White Jr. will play linebacker.

Hawk, D’Andrea, Carpenter and White were four of the most heavily recruited linebackers in the country two years ago. They appear to be every bit as good as advertised.

Gamble and Dustin Fox return at the two corner positions. Gamble was amazing last year, starting the final six games at cornerback and finishing the season with 24 tackles and a team-best four interceptions to go along with his offensive statistics. The 6-2 junior, who in the Fiesta Bowl limited Miami’s Andre Johnson to four receptions, spent most of his time with the defense in the spring and should be something special this year. The hard-hitting, extremely intelligent Fox will be in his third year as a starter. He is the Buckeyes’ leading returning tackler with 84 a year ago (third on the team). He also led the Buckeyes in passes broken up with 14. Sophomore E.J. Underwood and freshman Ashton Youboty (who enrolled last winter quarter) are the primary backups. Both are solid young football players.

The Buckeyes must find two new safeties. Last year’s senior captains, three-time All-American Mike Doss and four-year starter Donnie Nickey, are gone.

Senior Will Allen is expected to take over for Doss at strong safety. Allen was the Buckeyes’ nickel back last year and has played extensively the last two years. His interception on the final play of the Michigan game preserved the Buckeyes’ win. Donte Whitner, another true freshman, will be the backup. Whitner, who like Youboty enrolled last winter, was recruited as a cornerback, but was moved to safety in the spring and impressed the coaches with his quick grasp of the position.

Sophomores Nate Salley and Tyler Everett are the leading candidates to replace Nickey at the free spot. Both are extremely athletic and physical. Salley emerged from spring ball with a slight edge, but both will play a lot. Everett could wind up being the nickel back. Look for redshirt freshman Brandon Mitchell to play, too. He is another player who won’t shy away from contact.

The Ohio State defense was one of the best in the nation last year, finishing second nationally in scoring defense (13.1 points per game) and third against the run (77.5).

“We have lost some very good football players, but we have some very good players returning,” said Dantonio. “Hopefully, we can again be an aggressive unit that dictates the tempo.

“One of the things we want to do this year is force more turnovers, and score off those turnovers.”

As is always the case with Tressel’s teams, there will be a great deal of emphasis placed on all phases of the special teams.

With the record-setting Nugent returning for his junior year, the place-kicking duties seem to be in good hands. Nugent set nine school records last year on his way to becoming the first Ohio State place-kicker to receive first-team All-America honors.

The Buckeyes must replace another first-team All-American punter in Andy Groom, whose booming kicks saved the day on more than one occasion last year. But senior B.J. Sander kicked very well in the spring and appears ready to take over.

Additionally, senior Kyle Andrews returns for his second year as the long snapper. His steady performance last year resulted in a scholarship at the end of the season.

There also are a number of outstanding players on the coverage units, including, but not limited to, Jason Bond, Bryce Culver, Steven Moore, Harlen Jacobs, Mike Roberts and Joe Bradley.

“Good teams have to have good special teams play,” said Tressel. “We spend a lot of time in that area, because every championship team I have been associated with, has had good special teams play.”

In all the Buckeyes return 51 lettermen, 24 on offense, 22 on defense and five from the special teams. It is a talented, veteran unit. But the hurdles that lie ahead are formidable, including the season opener with Washington, a key intersectional game with North Carolina State, the addition of Iowa to the schedule and trips to Penn State and Michigan.

“Our schedule is as difficult as it has ever been,” warns Tressel, “and there will be a bulls-eye on our backs every week. We need to stay in the moment and focus on the task at hand.”