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Aug. 7, 2005

When the Ohio State coaching staff and team get together at the end of the season to discuss their goals for the coming year, the Big Ten crown and a berth in the BCS championship game are always two of the fattest carrots dangling at the end of the string.

Those carrots are particularly enticing this year because the BCS title game will be played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena – the exclusive destination point for the Big Ten football champion from 1946 until the “Granddaddy of all Bowls” joined forces with the Bowl Championship Series in 1999.

To get to the land of milk and honey, Ohio State must wade through a non-conference schedule that includes perennial Mid-American Conference contender Miami, defending Rose Bowl champion Texas and always-dangerous San Diego State. Then comes an eight-game Big Ten gauntlet that begins with defending co-champion Iowa visiting Columbus and concludes with an emotionally charged trip to Ann Arbor to play Michigan, the other conference co-champion.

But while the road ahead is formidable, the Buckeyes appear suitably equipped to make the journey.

Coach Jim Tressel’s fifth Ohio State squad returns 18 starters from a year ago, when the Buckeyes posted an 8-4 record and closed out the season by winning five of their last six starts, including impressive victories over Michigan in the regular-season finale and Oklahoma State in the MasterCard Alamo Bowl. With 45 returning lettermen spread out across the depth chart, the Buckeyes have a plethora of experience and talent at almost every position. In particular, Ohio State’s receivers, linebackers and defensive backs are thought to be among the elite in college football. And with another highly regarded freshman class ready to come in and augment the existing talent level, the Buckeyes would appear to have the makings of a championship contender.

But the Buckeyes, who won the national championship in 2002, won’t get caught looking too far ahead. Tressel will see to that. The skillful Buckeye mentor is a believer in staying focused and taking one game at a time. His first four teams at Ohio State have dined on that recipe and the result has been a sumptuous overall record of 40-11, two BCS victories, a perfect 14-0 season and a national championship. It is a proven formula for success, one that the players have readily adapted as their own mantra.

The Buckeyes will benefit too from the leadership of seniors A.J. Hawk, Anthony Schlegel, Bobby Carpenter, Tyler Everett, Nate Salley, Robbie Sims and Nick Mangold. It is a class capable of handling the responsibility that Tressel routinely delegates to his seniors.

The holdovers are evenly divided on offense and defense. Both units return nine starters and 22 lettermen. Kicker Josh Huston is the 45th returning letter winner.

Buckeyes should be balanced on offense
The OSU offense hopes to pick up in 2005 where it left off a year ago when it closed out the season by rolling up 446 yards against Michigan and 403 yards against Oklahoma State and scored a combined total of 70 points in those two victories.

The weapons are numerous, especially at wide receiver where junior Santonio Holmes and sophomores Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez give the Buckeye quarterbacks – and there are three possibilities for the starter’s job heading into the fall – an absolutely lethal trio of targets to zero in on.

Holmes, last year’s leading receiver and a Biletnikoff candidate this year, and Gonzalez possess outstanding speed and are gifted receivers. The sure-handed Holmes has a nose for the end zone.

Ginn simply takes speed to another level. NO DEFENDER EVER has an angle on him when he gets in the open field. He scored eight touchdowns last year – four on punt returns and two each on receptions and runs – and is literally a threat to score anytime he touches the ball. Ohio State’s opponents should expect a lot of touches for Ginn in 2005.

Additionally, Roy Hall, Devon Lyons and Devin Jordan are talented receivers who will see playing time. The latter three would start for most teams. Late last year, after the Buckeyes’ receiving corps and offensive line had come of age, it was not unusual for the Buckeyes to line up in an “empty” look with five wide receivers on the flanks. Expect that formation to be a staple in the Buckeyes’ arsenal this year.

Nor is there a dearth of talent at quarterback where juniors Justin Zwick and Troy Smith return, and redshirt freshman Todd Boeckman is waiting for his chance to shine.

The 6-4 Zwick started the first six games for the fledgling Buckeyes a year ago, but then suffered a shoulder injury at Iowa that caused him to miss the remainder of the regular season. Enter Smith, who calmly stepped in and guided the Buckeyes to a 4-1 record down the stretch, including the victory over Michigan in which he accounted for three touchdowns and 386 yards in total offense. But Zwick thrust himself back into the picture at the MasterCard Alamo Bowl by directing the Buckeyes to the win over Oklahoma State despite playing most of the game with a pulled hamstring.

Zwick has great poise in the pocket, an uncannily quick release and a sixth sense for seeing the play unfold almost before it does. The 6-1 Smith is doubly dangerous as a runner. Michigan learned that the hard way. He rushed for 145 yards on 18 carries against the Wolverines last fall, missing the school single-game rushing record for a quarterback by a scant one yard.

Boeckman’s only experience the past two years has come with the scout squad, but it has come against the Buckeyes’ No. 1 defense and that certainly qualifies as a litmus test. His coolness under fire has made the coaching staff sit up and take notice.

Zwick and Smith have a decided edge in experience, but, make no mistake about it, the 6-5, 235-pound Boeckman has thrown his hat into the ring. The coaches have confidence in all three players.

Sophomore Antonio Pittman is coming off an impressive spring showing and unquestionably has the edge, but redshirt freshman Erik Haw and true freshman Maurice Wells will have ample opportunity to strut their stuff.

The 5-11 Pittman is the only one of the three with any game experience whatsoever. He played in 11 games last year and was the Buckeyes’ second leading rusher behind Ross, finishing his rookie campaign with 72 carries for 381 yards and an average of 5.3 yards per attempt. He is a talented back with speed and vision. At times last year, he was exceptional.

As a redshirt, Haw benefited enormously from going up against the OSU defense on a daily basis. He has speed, can run inside and, at 6-1 and 212, appears capable of carrying the ball 20 to 25 times a game in Big Ten play.

Wells was one of the most sought-after running backs in the country last year, winning Parade All-America honors. The 5-10 speed merchant led the state of Florida in rushing as a junior with 3,076 yards, including a record 429 yards in one game. He has the talent to have an impact at a position where the Buckeyes are looking for someone to step up and take charge.

The fullback responsibilities will fall to senior Brandon Schnittker and sophomore Dionte Johnson, both second generation Buckeyes. The 6-2, 250-pound Schnittker has been a key reserve and part-time starter the past three years and is a smart, dependable football player, who in addition to being a fine blocker is also a strong runner and sure-handed receiver. The youthful Johnson quickly became a favorite of Buckeye fans last year with his bull-like plunges into the line, often times dragging two and three defenders with him. He packs 250 pounds, and a wallop, on his six-foot frame and is going to be a standout.

But while the skill-position players always seem to receive most of the glory, any football coach worth his salt knows a football team is only as good as its offensive line.

That’s good news for offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. With all but one starter, and nine of the top 10 in the two deep returning from last year, the offensive line should be one of the Buckeyes’ strengths in 2005.

The cast of holdovers starts with senior center Nick Mangold. Now in his third year as a starter, he’s an All-American and Rimington Award candidate and the linchpin up front, where he makes all the calls. The 6-4, 290-pound Mangold was good enough as a sophomore to dislodge Alex Stepanovich (a starter for the Arizona Cardinals last year as a rookie). He has only gotten better.

Senior Robbie Sims is another standout. The veteran of the offensive line, he has played in 35 games as a Buckeye and has 28 starts to his credit. The 6-4, 310-pound Sims is the incumbent left tackle, but he is agile enough to move inside and play guard if need be.

Kirk Barton (6-7, 325) returns at right tackle. The big junior started the final seven games of last year and played well. He is a tough, no nonsense football player with lots of grit.

The Buckeyes have two other proven tackles in junior Tim Schafer (6-5, 290) and sophomore Steve Rehring (6-8, 329). Both started games last year and are very capable. Rehring took baby steps early and then giant strides late, prompting the coaching staff to take off his redshirt and play him even though the season was more than half gone. The Buckeyes won’t miss a beat when either Rehring or Schafer are on the field. Redshirt freshman Jon Skinner (6-5, 300) and true frosh Alex Boone (6-8, 315) are a couple of promising newcomers.With Rehring, Skinner and Boone in the mix, Schafer moved to defensive tackle this spring. It remains to be seen where he will line up in the fall, but he did come to Ohio State as a defensive lineman.

Juniors T.J. Downing and Doug Datish, both athletic and in the 6-5 and 295 range, are expected to be the starting guards. Downing began last year in a three-way battle at right tackle, but wound up starting three of the final four games at left guard. Datish started nine games at left guard, but will now move to the right side as a replacement for graduated senior Mike Kne.

Veterans John Conroy and Andree Tyree, along with redshirt freshmen Ben Person and Kyle Mitchum, provide depth inside. There are high expectations for both of the latter.

The Buckeyes have a pair of solid tight ends in senior Ryan Hamby and sophomore Rory Nicol. Hamby started for the first time last year and averaged 11.1 yards per catch. He is a gifted receiver with the speed to get down field and the athletic ability to make the tough catch. Nicol is young, but he is going to be very good both as a blocker and as a receiver. He played in 10 games last year as a true freshman.

Versatile Stan White Jr. who really is a jack of all trades, lends depth at tight end, as well as fullback. Sophomore Marcel Frost is another highly thought of tight end prospect. He had the coaches salivating last year, but injured a knee fairly early and missed the remainder of the season. Healthy, he has all kinds of possibilities.

A work in progress last year, the Ohio State offensive line has come of age. As a result, the Buckeyes appear to have all the ingredients necessary for a productive, well-balanced offensive attack.

Linebackers are the hub of another solid defense
A sign in the Woody Hayes Athletics Center proclaims “Defense Wins Championships!” Expect the Ohio State defense to hold up its end of the bargain in 2005.

With Hawk, Carpenter, Schlegel and Salley, along with Quinn Pitcock, Mike D’Andrea , Donte Whitner and Tyler Everett in the lineup, it is a star-studded cast worthy of a Hollywood gala.

In terms of collective talent, Hawk, Carpenter, Schlegel and D’Andrea could well be the best group of linebackers ever to wear scarlet and gray jerseys in the same season. They combined for 331 tackles last year, including 28.5 tackles-for-loss and seven sacks.

Hawk, a first-team All-American, led the way with 141 stops, the highest single-season total by a Buckeye since 1987. He was in on 20 tackles against Wisconsin, becoming just the ninth defender in Ohio State history to reach that plateau.

Carpenter was second on the team in tackles with 93, including a career-high 13 against both Marshall and Michigan State. He also was second in interceptions with three.

Schlegel began last year in a backup role, but took over in the middle when D’Andrea suffered a season-ending knee injury in early October. He was third in tackles with 84 and led the team in tackles-for-loss with 10.5 for a minus 47 yards. In linebacker parlance, he runs down hill.

D’Andrea, the fastest of the OSU linebackers, missed spring ball as a result of his knee injury, but he is expected back in the fall. If he can stay healthy, the sky is the limit for the 6-3 senior. With senior John Kerr (a transfer from Indiana) and sophomores Marcus Freeman, Curtis Terry and Chad Hoobler all waiting in the wings, the Buckeyes are set at linebacker.

Up front, the Buckeyes return three of four starters, including behemoth tackle Quinn Pitcock. Pitcock started for the first time last year and led the defensive line in tackles (49) and tackles-for-loss (7.5). In addition to being one of the strongest players on the team, the 6-3, 295-pound junior has a 36-inch vertical leap. Not much gets by him or, for that matter, over him.

Marcus Green, a three year letterman, returns at the other tackle spot. He had 32 tackles last year in his first season as a starter. A veteran of 32 games, the 6-3 senior has been a dependable football player throughout his career.

Mike Kudla is back at defensive end. He started the final six games last year and finished the season with 28 tackles, 6.5 tackles-for-loss and 4.0 sacks. The 6-3 senior has been slowed by injuries during much of his career. When he is healthy, he is a playmaker.

Jay Richardson and David Patterson, both juniors, will contend for the other starting end spot. Richardson started the first six games last year and played very well, especially in terms of rushing the passer, before suffering a knee injury that for all intents and purposes ended his season. Patterson played tackle last year and was a key reserve. He was moved back to end (where he played in 2003) in the spring in order to shore up the depth there.

Kudla, Richardson and Patterson give the Buckeyes three very good ends.

Depth along the defensive front will come from Joel Penton, Sian Cotton and Nader Abdallah at tackle, and from Vernon Gholston and Alex Barrow at end. The athletic Schafer is another possibility. The coaches liked what they saw in the spring, but at this point the move is still in the experimental stage. Schafer began his career at OSU as a defensive lineman.

Penton, a two-year letterman, is the Buckeyes’ third tackle. The 315-pound Cotton has the bulk to help out inside, especially in goal line situations. Gholston played in six games last year as a true freshman and has all the tools necessary to became a standout at rush end.

As has been the case in recent years, expect the Buckeyes to play a number of players along the defensive front and keep pressure on the quarterback.

The secondary has four solid starters in safeties Nate Salley and Tyler Everett and cornerbacks Ashton Youboty and Donte Whitner. Salley and Youboty started every game last year, while Whitner and Everett split time at strong safety. With three-year regular Dustin Fox graduated, Everett moves in at Fox’s vacated cornerback spot and Whitner will settle in fulltime alongside Salley. Everett sat out the spring, but will be back in the fall.

It is an exceptional foursome. Salley, who earned second-team All-Big Ten honors last year is a hitter, as are Everett and Whitner. All three are intelligent players and great athletes. Youboty, only a junior, has a chance to be special as a cover corner. He made tremendous strides last year after taking over as a starter and was one of the best in the league late in the season. Most teams chose not to throw his way; those that did regretted it. One of the most interesting aspects of bowl practice last year was watching OSU’s talented receiving corps trying to get deep on Youboty. For the most part, it was an exercise in futility.

All four starters in the secondary are capable of winning All-Big Ten honors. Youboty will be a candidate for national acclaim.

Junior Brandon Mitchell is the only other DB with any appreciable experience, so lack of experience is somewhat of a concern. But there is a deep, albeit young, talent pool available in redshirt freshmen Nick Patterson, Shaun Lane and Brandon Underwood; and true freshmen Andre Amos, Brian Hartline and Jamario O’Neal. The first three got a long look in spring ball, the latter three will get a crash course in the fall.

First-year defensive coordinator Jim Heacock has a deep, talented, experienced and physical collection of athletes in his lineup. And forget the age-old notion, that Big Ten teams lack speed. These guys can run.

Huston’s return a major plus for OSU’s kicking game
The Ohio State kicking game has produced three All-Americans and two major award winners the past three years. But the Buckeyes are starting from scratch this year.

The return of place-kicker Josh Huston is a bonus. Huston, who received a medical redshirt for 2005, will handle the field goal and extra point duties. He has the daunting task for replacing two-time All-American and 2004 Lou Groza Award winner Mike Nugent, but the 6-1 senior, who lettered in 2001 and had 18 points that year, is very capable.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Pretorius will be the backup.

During Tressel’s first four years at Ohio State, the Buckeyes have spent an inordinate amount of time on the punting game. They have done so with great success, leading the Big Ten in net punting each of the past three seasons.

Senior Kyle Turano is gone, so redshirt freshman A.J. Trapasso appears to be the heir apparent at punter. The 6-1, 220-pound Trapasso demonstrated a strong leg last year. But consistency, and the ability to pin opponents deep in the shadow of their own goal line, are the keys to winning the job as far as Tressel is concerned. The Buckeye coach calls the punt, “the most important play in football.”

On paper, the Buckeyes’ kicking game looms as the biggest question mark of the 2005 season. But Tressel seems to have a magic wand when it comes to finding talented kickers, so don’t be surprised to see the coach pull another rabbit out of his hat this year.

Pollsters will rate this team high
The Buckeyes appear to be talented on both sides of the ball. The offense is explosive and versatile, capable of long drives and quick strikes. The defense is physical, deep and can run. The schedule is challenging, but the Buckeyes have gone 33-6 the past three years and know how to win. Many of the preseason pollsters will have this team rated in their top five. All will have it their top 10.

As always, the keys will be staying healthy, winning the close games (something the Buckeyes have been very good at under Tressel) and getting a few lucky bounces.