July 20, 1999
John Cooper, fifth among active collegiate coaches with 179 wins and sixth in winning percentage (.705), enters his 12th season as head coach of the Buckeyes with goals of building another Big Ten Conference and national championship caliber team in 1999. This despite losing the talents of five All-Americans, three of whom went in the first round of the 1999 NFL Draft, a record-smashing quarterback and a total of 10 starters off last seasons splendid 11-1 team.
Championships – Big Ten and national – are an expected yearly goal at Ohio State, regardless of who is back and who is not back. If history is any indication, Coopers 1999 Buckeyes will be a force again on the national scene and a legitimate “player” in the Bowl Championship Series standings.
“Ohio State University football is an established program, and one we think is among the elite in college football,” Cooper said, “so we are used to losing great players every year and we are used to recruiting great players to replace the ones we lose. Weve had some work to do, particularly at the quarterback, wide receiver, linebacker and defensive back positions, but thats football. Its time for some younger guys in the program to step up.”
There are plenty of veterans to lead the way in 1999. Guys like all-Big Ten Conference honorees Michael Wiley, Nail Diggs, Ahmed Plummer and Ben Gilbert are among the 40 returning lettermen and the 12 returning starters. All Sports Illustrated Bowl Team pick Gary Berry returns at safety.
Among the returnees are three starting offensive linemen (left tackle Tyson Walter, center Kurt Murphy and right guard Gilbert) who have started together for two-consecutive years. Savvy fullback Matt Keller will be in the starting line-up for a third-consecutive season and a couple of veteran tight ends – seniors Kevin Houser and Steve Wisniewski – have each played in over 35 games.
All four starters along the defensive line return (juniors Rodney Bailey, Joe Brown and Brent Johnson and sophomore Ryan Pickett) as do their back-ups, including 11- and eight-game starters Matt LaVrar, an end, and Clinton Wayne, a tackle. Two receivers who reek of speed and athleticism – juniors Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo – are also ready to shine in 1999 after spending two seasons learning from David Boston and Dee Miller.
Mix in enough other talented veterans and young players and one can see reason as to why Ohio State should field another strong team in 1999.
Coach – Tim Salem
Key Returnees – Steve Bellisari & Austin Moherman
Key Losses – Record setting Joe Germaine and back-up Mark Garcia
Whats Up? – Bellisari and Moherman will go into fall camp enjoying the competition for No. 1 and each is expected to get plenty of live action during the first three or four games of the season
Cooper & Co. went into spring drills looking for replacements for Joe Germaine, who set 11 school passing records, and his back-up, Mark Garcia. Red-shirt sophomore Austin Moherman and true sophomore Steve Bellisari were the only two quarterbacks in camp, so each was well-schooled and their repetitions were well documented. They came out of the drills virtually deadlocked for the position and coach Tim Salem expects both will have plenty of opportunities to lead the team during the non-conference schedule, which includes games against Miami, UCLA, Ohio and Cincinnati. Together, they have a combined three series of quarterback action – all coming against Toledo last year – to their credit. They have only six pass attempts combined and tailback Michael Wiley has completed more passes.
Cooper is not worried by the relative inexperience of either quarterback. “Its just a cycle that you go through every three or four years,” Cooper said. “Neither Austin or Steve are established collegiate quarterbacks, but we feel that both of them can lead this team, and we feel that each will give the other great competition. We are in much the same situation that we were in three years ago when we had to replace Bob Hoying. I think we did all right the last three years with Stan Jackson and Joe Germaine at the helm.”
Bellisari actually played in all 12 games last season on special teams and displayed a fierce competitive drive and terrific athleticism. He shared the teams special teams player of the year award, but his special teams and strong safety days are over.
Coach – Tim Spencer
Key Returnees – 1,235-yard rusher Michael Wiley, Jonathan Wells, Derek Combs, Jerry Westbrooks
Key Loss – Joe Montgomery
Whats Up? – Wiley is proven, Combs and Westbrooks have speed and moves but lack playing time, the 230-pound Wells is charging fast
Last fall Sports Illustrated set out to build the perfect college football team in the 1990s, and the editors chose Ohio State University to supply the tailbacks. The Buckeyes have featured a 1,000-yard rusher in six out of the last nine years, including 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George, and tailback will be a team strength in 1999 with the return of 1,235-yard rusher Michael Wiley, emerging talents Derek Combs and Jonathan Wells and the athletic, steady and ready Jerry Westbrooks.
Wiley has terrific speed and terrific moves and he “makes great decisions” with the football, said running backs coach Tim Spencer. His 1,235-yard season was accomplished with the third-fewest carries by any OSU back who has topped 1,000 yards – 198 – and he is developing a tailback toughness. His six 100-yard games included 209 yards vs. Missouri and 120 (off 12 carries) vs. Michigan. The first-team all-Big Ten selection scored 10 rushing touchdowns and he recorded 13 runs of over 20 yards, including a personal best 76-yarder vs. Toledo. He was also the teams third-leading receiver with 27 receptions for 200 yards.
Wells is a powerful runner who carried 41 times for 197 yards (4.8 average) with two touchdowns last year as a true freshman. Combs, a junior, carried 31 times for 88 yards and is, perhaps, the fastest player on the team. Westbrooks wants some action.
Coach – Tim Spencer
Key Returnees – Two-year starter Matt Keller, Jamar Martin
Key Losses – None
Whats Up? – Keller can run like a tailback, catch like a receiver and block like a lineman, Martin is highly capable as well
The Buckeyes are solid at fullback. Matt Keller carries 22 starts, 521 rushing yards and 52 receptions into his senior season. Although characterized as undersized for the typical I formation fullback, Keller, at 6-0 and nearing 240 pounds, adds powerful blocking abilities to his otherwise savvy repertoire to give Ohio State an added dimension of versatility to the position. Jamar Martin, a battering ram at 6-1 and 235 pounds, was a stable back-up as a true freshman last season who figures to be even better as a sophomore.
Coach – Mike Jacobs
Key Returnees – RG Ben Gilbert, LT Tyson Walter, C Kurt Murphy
Key Losses – LG Rob Murphy, RT Brooks Burris
Whats Up? – LG Mike Gurr, RT Henry Fleming and versatile LeCharles Bentley and Tam Hopkins are eager
The loss of Rob Murphy and back surgery this spring for Tyson Walter has the offensive line recovering heading into 1999. There is still plenty of good news along the line. Walter, a two-year starter, is expected to be at full strength by fall camp, right guard Ben Gilbert, secondteam all-Big Ten in 1998, is called “possibly the best guard in the Big Ten” by line coach Mike Jacobs, and Kurt Murphy will be a three-year starter and leader at center. These three individuals are four-year veterans who are game-experienced and proud. They will be the foundation of a line that is coming off a year in 1998 that had Ohio State ranked fifth nationally in total offense with a school-record 503.5 yards per game.
Good teams are characterized by strength up the middle, and with quality juniors like Mike Gurr, Tam Hopkins and Henry Fleming and true sophomore LeCharles Bentley – all back-ups in 1998 – ready to step in and play major roles, Ohio State should have strength along the offensive line again this season. Depth will come with the return of guard Jim Massey, out all last year with a back injury, from huge tackles Eric Smith, a junior, and Ivan Douglas, a first-year sophomore, and senior center Drew Elford.
Coach – Bill Conley
Key Returnees – Steve Wisniewski and Kevin Houser
Key Loss – John Lumpkin
Whats Up? – Last years starter is gone, but there is experienced and quality players in line
The Buckeyes lose a good one in 6-8 John Lumpkin, but return two veteran tight ends who have plenty of playing time. Steve Wisniewski has played extensively as a blocking tight end in 36 of the teams 37 games over the last three seasons. He has also caught 15 passes for 218 yards and two touchdowns. Kevin Houser, who also long snaps, pulled tight end playing time in all 12 games last season and “has been the most consistent tight end over the last year,” said coach Bill Conley. Red-shirt freshman Darnell Sanders is huge, talented, athletic and waiting.
Coach – Chuck Stobart
Key Returnees – Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo
Key Losses – All-American David Boston, Dee Miller
Whats Up? – Plenty of speed on the corners from Germany and Rambo but depth and game experience are lacking
An area hit hard as the Buckeyes lose the dynamic duo of split end David Boston and flanker Dee Miller, possibly the finest receiving tandem in college football last season and one of the all-time best tandems ever at Ohio State. There is talent in the waiting.
Juniors Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo have waited for their time to fly and it has come. Germany, who also has doubled as a hurdler on the track team, displayed acute pass catching skills and graceful athleticism while catching 14 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. Rambo has just three fewer career catches than Germany (15 to 12), but didnt shine like Germany in 1998 due, in part, to a sprained ankle that hobbled him throughout. Still, he came to Ohio State with the highest of high school credentials and he wouldnt be the first with such laurels to explode as a junior. Just ask Dee Miller. Behind those two are a handful of underclassmen – Darik Warnke, Vanness Provitt, Chad Cacchio and Tony Locke – who have virtually no big game experience. Locke was the only one of the four who practiced throughout spring drills. Warnke (hamstring), Provitt (fibula) and Cacchio (shoulder) all were injured for part or all of spring.
Cooper: “I am concerned with our depth at receiver and with the injuries that we have had. We will be counting on one of the true freshman to come in and step up right away.”
Ends Coach – Shawn Simms
Tackles Coach – Jim Heacock
Key Returnees – DE Brent Johnson, DT Joe Brown, DT Ryan Pickett, DE Rodney Bailey and all their back-ups
Key Losses – None
Whats Up? – Depth plus emerging stars plus the confidence to substitute freely equals a where-them-out unit
The front four on defense will be the foundation. All four starters return – ends Brent Johnson and Rodney Bailey and tackles Joe Brown and Ryan Pickett – as do all four backups. Johnson, Bailey and Brown are all juniors. Pickett is only a sophomore but started nine times as a true freshman.
Johnson was the surprise of the group last year, leading all linemen in tackles (40) as well as leading the team with seven quarterback sacks. Coaches voted him the teams top defensive linemen at the seasons conclusion. Bailey and Brown are 16- and 17-game start veterans and they keep improving. Both are considered play-makers. Brown played the majority of the 1998 season in pain, the result of a steel plate to help heal a broken left thumb following fall camp surgery. Nearly half of Baileys tackles are behind the line. Pickett stepped into the starting lineup in the third game of the season and never vacated it. After a 22 tackle season, he has a bright future.
There is experience and competition among the reserves as well. Tackle Clinton Wayne has eight starts to his credit and end Matt LaVrar has 11. Physical tackle Mike Collins had the second-highest tackle total among the linemen last year – 23 – while playing in 11 games in a supporting role. He and Pickett shared the teams outstanding rookie award on the defensive side of the ball. Another OSU rookie last year, junior college transfer James Cotton, showed speed, athleticism and play-making abilities from his defensive end position. Additionally, Heath Queen, Randy Homa and Paris Long will keep battling for time at tackle and red-shirted freshmen Kenny Peterson and Julius Yeast will battle at end.
Coach – Fred Pagac
Key Returnee – Nail Diggs
Key Losses – Andy Katzenmoyer and Jerry Rudzinski
Whats Up? – Fall battles among Courtland Bullard Tim Cheatwood and Joe Cooper for the outside spot and between Chris Kirk and Jason Ott at middle linebacker
Gone is the All-American and Butkus Award winner Andy Katzenmoyer, a three-year starter, and savvy two-year starter Jerry Rudzinski. Finding replacements wont be easy.
The lone returning starter at linebacker is an incredible talent: junior outside linebacker Nail Diggs, a first-team All-Big Ten Conference pick as a sophomore and already a preseason All-America heading into this season. A true star on this team, Diggs was second (by one) among the Buckeyes last year in tackles with 80 and he led the way with 16 tackles for loss, totalling 73 yards. He also had six sacks, an interception, two pass break-ups and two fumble recoveries, one that he returned 47 yards for a touchdown. It was his first season as a linebacker after spending his first two seasons as a defensive end.
The list of candidates in spring camp to replace Katzenmoyer in the middle centers around senior Chris Kirk and sophomore Jason Ott. Neither has played extensively in tight situations. Kirk has the most game action – 26 appearances the last three years – while Ott played in 11 last year as a red-shirt freshman. Both players are physically tough and both weight about 240 pounds.
Juniors Tim Cheatwood and Joe Cooper, two special teams veterans who arent afraid to give or receive a hit, and red-shirt sophomore Courtland Bullard top the list for playing time at outside linebacker. Cooper backed-up Rudzinski all last season with the majority of his 24 tackles coming on special teams. Hes a bit undersized, but has heart and crushes opponents with his hits. Cheatwood backed-up Diggs in 1998 and has size and athletic ability. He totalled 18 tackles. Bullard played limited minutes in two games and ended up getting a medical red-shirt season due to a painful injury near his groin. He is an outstanding athlete who can become a big-time asset at linebacker.
Coach – Jon Tenuta
Key Returnees – FS Gary Berry, CB Ahmed Plummer, SS Percy King, CB Nate Clements
Key Losses – Thorpe Award winner and consensus All-American CB Antoine Winfield, All-American and three-year starting SS Damon Moore
Whats Up? – Expect to hear Clements and red-shirt freshman SS Donnie Nickeys names this season
The good news in the secondary is that Gary Berry and Ahmed Plummer return which will help offset – somewhat – the huge losses of All-Americans Antoine Winfield and Damon Moore. Both returnees will be All-American candidates in 1999. Berry has always been known as a play-maker at free safety with six interceptions, two touchdowns – one off a blocked punt and one off an interception – and seven pass break-ups. He capped his junior season with a terrificeffort in the win over Texas A&M in the Sugar Bowl, totalling a career-best 12 tackles including 11 solo stops. Plummer, a 1999 preseason All-America, is not only an outstanding athlete with exceptional cornerback skills, but also is a tested cornerback. A two-year starter, Plummer has 35 appearances and 25 starts to his credit plus nine pass interceptions and 25 pass break-ups. He led the team in both categories last year.
Percy King was one of the most improved defensive backs two years ago. He has plenty of experience – 27 games – with two interceptions and three blocked kicks and he will have every opportunity this fall to replace Moore as the starter at strong safety. So will Donnie Nickey, who emerged this spring and was conisidered the surprise of camp by Cooper. Freshman Cie Grant will also provide competition.
Nate Clements backed-up Winfield all last season as a true freshman so he would appear to have the edge at cornerback, although classmate Derek Ross, a special teams hero last year, and junior David Mitchell will be in the cornerback picture. Mitchell will also fight for playing time minutes with sophomore Greg Simpson at free safety.
Key Returnees – Kicker Dan Stultz and long snapper Kevin Houser
Key Losses – Four-year punter Brent Bartholomew
Whats Up? – The area where Cooper is most concerned heading into 1999
“I am concerned heading into the season about our special teams play,” Cooper said following spring drills. “We have kicking game question marks.” Dan Stultz could prove to be an exclamation point instead of a question mark. He has handled all the kicking chores the last two years, but had lower back problems last season and struggled through a 13-for-25 season in field goals. He had lower back surgery this spring and it is hoped that he will be at full strength by the time fall camp opens.
True freshman B.J. Sander will have the punting responsibilities handed to him, similiar to what departed four-year punter Brent Bartholomew went through in 1995 as a true freshman. He can kick as well.
Kevin Houser will provide all the long snaps for a fourth-consecutive year.
1 – Sr. FS Gary Berry
One of the teams fastest players and best athletes, Berry is a play maker. He has 115 career tackles, six interceptions and seven pass break-ups. He capped a solid junior season in 1998 with a 12 tackle performance – 11 of the solos – in the Buckeyes win over Texas A&M in the Nokia Sugar Bowl.
32 – Jr. LB Na’il Diggs
Has a ton of talent, athletic ability and quickness who is a 1999 preseason All-America. His 108 career tackles includes 24 tackles-for-loss, totalling 112 yards, with 12 of those quarterback sacks. Named first-team all-Big Ten in 1998 after an 80-tackle, six-sack season.
64 – Sr. RG Ben Gilbert
Gilbert is coming off an outstanding junior season in 1998, having helped the Buckeyes to over 500 yards per game of total offense including nearly 200 rushing yards per game. He was named Ohio States offensive lineman of the year and he earned second-team all-Big Ten Conference.
60 – Jr. DE Brent Johnson
The surprise player of the 1998 season for the Buckeyes. Had a banner sophomore season while starting all 12 games at defensive end. He lead all linemen with 40 tackles and he lead the team with seven quarterback sacks for losses totalling 35 yards. Named OSUs Lineman of the Year.
23 – Sr. FB Matt Keller
Will be a team leader on the offensive side of the ball in 1999. A most-valuable offensive performer, simply without all the hype. Enters the season with impressive totals for an OSU fullback of 521 rushing yards, 52 receptions and 574 receiving yards, and five touchdowns scored.
19 – Sr. CB Ahmed Plummer
A 1999 preseason All-America who has started alongside All-Americans but has never been overshadowed. Has led the Buckeyes in interceptions the past two years and has nine career interceptions and 25 career pass break-ups. Honorable mention all-Big Ten Conference in 1998.
5 – Sr. TB Michael Wiley
Cruised in 1998 for 1,235 yards in first season as a starter and was named all-Big Ten by coaches and media. An electrifying performer, Wiley enters 1999 with 1,999 rushing yards, 42 receptions for an additional 477 yards and 22 touchdowns (17 of them rushing).