A period of adjustment is underway within Ohio State football, with plenty of new faces and new assignments to renew a Buckeye program that has won Big Ten titles and played in BCS bowls the last four years.
It starts April 2, when Coach Jim Tressel and his staff begin to replace 24 lettermen during 14 practices that precede the OSU spring game April 25 (the same day the NFL Draft is likely to select a prodigious number of former Buckeyes).
“We want to use this spring as a chance to study who we are and what we can do,” explains Tressel, beginning his ninth campaign as head coach at Ohio State. “We’re looking forward to some positive growth as individuals and as a team. Our guys during the winter were as responsive, as competitive and as accountable as I can remember in handling what they had to do.”
On defense, all-conference strong safety Kurt Coleman (78 tackles, 4 int) and free safety Anderson Russell (67 tackles, 2 int) will be the senior leaders of the secondary. Junior Chimdi Chekwa (30 tackles, 4 PBU) is a returning starter at cornerback, the position that lost Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington to the NFL. Andre Amos, Aaron Gant, Jermale Hines and Devon Torrence are among the returning lettermen contending for a more productive role among the defensive backs.
The defensive line may be the most experienced OSU unit heading into the 2009 campaign, with seniors Doug Worthington (34 tackles, 5 TFL), Lawrence Wilson (18 tackles, 2 FR), Todd Denlinger (7 tackles), juniors Cameron Heyward (36 tackles, 3 sacks), Dexter Larimore (15 tackles, 3.5 TFL) and Thaddeus Gibson (26 tackles, 9 TFL) and sophomore Nathan Williams (18 tackles, 4 TFL) having seen plenty of quality action in the past.
Seniors Ross Homan and Austin Spitler will anchor the Buckeye linebacking corps, a unit which needs to replace decorated veterans James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. Juniors Tyler Moeller and Brian Rolle and sophomores Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat also earned letters at linebacker a year ago.
Offensively, the Buckeyes return talented Terrelle Pryor at quarterback. As a true freshman, he led the Big Ten in passing efficiency, passing for 1,311 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 631 yards and six scores.
Sophomore Dan “Boom” Herron, who rushed for 439 yards and six touchdowns last season, is the favorite to replace Chris “Beanie” Wells at tailback. With the leading receivers of the past two seasons Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline off to the NFL, junior Dane Sanzenbacher (21 catches, 272 yds, 1 TD), senior Ray Small (18 catches, 149 yds) and true sophomores DeVier Posey and Lamaar Thomas must step into more prominent roles in the passing game.
Jake Ballard, a regular at tight end the past two seasons, will take a leadership role there as a senior. Three returning starters senior Jim Cordle, junior Bryant Browning and sophomore Mike Brewster have the most experience along the offensive line.
The Buckeyes will replace graduated punter A.J. Trapasso and placekicker Ryan Pretorius as well. The kicking duties will be handled by senior Aaron Pettrey, who had two field goals of longer than 50 yards a year ago; Devin Barclay and Ben Buchanan will vie to become his backup. Long snapper Jake McQuaide returns, and at punter, senior Jon Thoma and Buchanan will be competing for the job.
“It’s a very challenging schedule,” Tressel says of the 12 opponents Ohio State will face in the fall, starting with the U.S. Naval Academy at Ohio Stadium Sept. 5. “Our defense hasn’t seen anything quite like what Navy does, and then we have Southern Cal here, and it goes on from there. We know the improvement of the various programs in the Big Ten. We will have to be very productive this spring and summer to keep pace.
“Football is a people game, a mindset game, an attitudinal game,” Tressel says. “I know we have the guys who are committed to growing in those areas.”