2006 Ohio State Football Preview
Aug. 29, 2006
2005 Record: 10-2 (7-1 Big Ten)
When the Buckeye faithful start humming with annual preseason anticipation, they usually have good reason. After a five-year span that has included 50 wins, two Big Ten titles, four bowl victories and a national championship, those expectations are at an all-time high entering the 2006 season. Forget that the Buckeyes are faced with replacing nine starters from one of the best defenses in the country, their top receiver, two leading lineman and field-goal kicker.
Given his track record, Jim Tressel has found a formula for reloading - rather than rebuilding - year-in and year-out that has the Buckeyes ranked at the top of nearly every preseason poll. But in order to continue the trends he has set in motion at OSU, Tressel might have to alter the method to his mastery. Since he has been at the helm, the Buckeyes have found success playing their strong card, a steady, nearly impenetrable defense, while finding conservative offense in the running game.
With an offense full of experienced playmakers and a developing young defense, this season's depth chart calls for an entirely different suit. Heisman-caliber quarterback Troy Smith is finally the team's clear-cut leader, commanding a high-octanne offensive attack.
Riding the momentum of a seven-game winning streak to close out the 2005 season, Ohio State enters the year ranked No. 1 for the first time since 1998. Smith found the Buckeyes' new offensive identity during the streak, and the team averaged 38 points per game. Many have hyped Smith as the next do-it-all quarterback a la Vince Young, and the Buckeye pilot solidified his status as a dual-threat QB in two extraordinary performances against Michigan and Notre Dame. After steering the Buckeyes' to a come-from-behind win in the last second against the Wolverines, Smith powered his team to a Tostitos Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame with a season-high team total of 617 offensive yards.
Despite sitting out the first game of 2005 and splitting time with Justin Zwick for two games, he finished the season with 2,283 yards passing and another 611 on the ground. The 6-1 senior also led the league in passing efficiency. Smith isn't letting the criticism from seasons past - or the Heisman hype - affect his steadfast decision-making ability.
"Every season will bring adversity. Maybe you'll come into the season weighing more than you're used to or maybe you're not as fast or a step behind; there's always something," he said. "If you wake up every morning with a positive outlook and a positive attitude, good things will come. Through the course of the game you have to let the game come to you. Yes, as the quarterback you have to make some things happen, but you can't control everything. You have to be consistent through the course of the game and through the season."
Aiding Smith's quest to lead the Buckeyes to their second national title in five years are two tremendous targets in all-around star Ted Ginn, Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. Smith's prep teammate and another Heisman hopeful, Ginn appears to be the Buckeyes' top receiver with All-American potential. He grabbed 51 catches - 17 of which came in the last two games - for 803 yards and four touchdowns last season. The versatile Gonzales has the speed and route-running ability to be the perfect compliment to Ginn.
Tressel lauds Ginn's touch and characterizes the multitalented athlete as a great route runner, but the coach is also quick to note his star reciever's newfound leadership role. "He is a pretty neat kind of leader. He does it with his energy," said Tressel. "He's so bubbly. He's a positive guy. You can see him encouraging the least likely guy that you would imagine. He's just a fun-loving positive guy."
Tailback Antonio Pittman put himself in good company last year, gaining 1,331 yards rushing - the second-most yards tallied by a sophomore in a single season. The only Buckeye to put up bigger numbers in his second year is two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin. After emerging as a start last season with eight 100-yard games, Pittman figures to lead the Buckeyes out of the backfield with his ability to make defenders miss and power past the first hit. The Buckeyes have two other exciting backs to share the load with sophomore Maurice Wells and rookie Chris Wells picking up speed. Heralded by some as the nation's top running back recruit, the 6-1, 225-pound freshman adds a new dimension with the strength and speed to pound the ball inside and spring back out.
Paving the way for the running corps is one of the most explosive offensive lines in the league. Perhaps Tressel's most talented line in six seasons, the projected starting five measure in at an average of 6-7 and 314-pounds per man. Anchoring the unit is senior Doug Datish. After a steady season at right tackle, the 6-5, 295-pound senior is taking over at center for All-American Nick Mangold. Sophomore He is joined by veteran guards Tim Schafer and T.J. Downing, both punishing, physical blockers. The talent potential for the Buckeye tackles is limitless with two monstrous, all-conference stars-in-waiting in sophomore Alex Boone and junior Kirk Barton. Boone is developing into an all-around blocker while Barton uses his impressive size for pass protection.
On the other side of the ball, the Buckeyes must replace seven defensive starters, including two-time All-American linebacker A.J. Hawk and two other first round NFL draft picks. While the new crop of unproven linebackers won't develop into household names like Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel over night, the drop off from the nation's best rushing defense - and fifth-best overall - won't be devastating, especially with a veteran front four leading the way.
The defensive line features three starting seniors, starting with All-America candidate tackle Quinn Pitcock in the middle. With double-team-drawing speed, Pitcock is one of the league's best defenders and will be a rock against the run. After moving inside from starting at end last season, David Patterson will make a solid run-stopper and a strong interior pass rusher at tackle. The two crafty veterans combined for 52 tackles last season. On the ends, fellow senior Jay Richardson will be a good leader against the rush, while sophomore Lawrence Wilson will make a name for himself on the other side of the line as the speed rusher of the crew.
The linebacking corps has quite a billing to live up to after last year's all-star crew raised the bar. But the new starting trio is not far off from being one of the nation's most talented squads. Marcus Freeman, a superstar recruit who missed last season with a knee injury, has jaw-dropping speed. The 230-pound sophomore will take over for Hawk at the week side, and if he's healthy could be equally dangerous as his predecessor with more experience. Senior John Kerr will take over in the middle for Schlagel. Before playing behind Hawk for the past two seasons, Kerr was one of the Big Ten's most active tacklers, making 114 stops in 2002 at Indiana. Backing him up is senior Mike D'Andrea. Another heralded recruit, D'Andrea missed most of the past two seasons with injuries. If he can stay healthy this year, his 6-3, 248-pound size and speed will be a difference-maker for the Buckeyes. On the strong side, James Laurinaitis fills Carpenter's void. The sophomore stepped last year when Carpenter broke his ankle against Michigan and started in the bowl game against Notre Dame.
While replacing an all-star linebacking corps is a huge concern, all four defensive backs from last year have also departed. In fact, this is the first time since 2000, and only the second since 1984, that OSU has had to replace the entire secondary. Luckily, the Buckeyes' have a wealth of athletes with 4.4-speed to fill the void. Sophomore Malcolm Jenkins made 37 stops and broke up two passes when he made four starts as a rookie, but the tough one-on-one defender is set to become OSU's premiere corner. As a prep, he won the New Jersey state title in the 200 and 400 meter dash. Now he will use his lock-down speed to burn opponents downfield. At 5-9 and 195-pounds, Antonio Smith will have to battle to stay out of any matchup nightmares, the former walk-on is speedy and makes few mistakes.
Sophomores Nick Patterson and Jamario O'Neal have the speed and athleticism to make excellent cornerback prospects, but in Ohio State's stock of speedsters, they are safeties. Still battling for the starting free safety spot with senior Brandon Mitchell, Patterson saw time as a rookie on special teams. Mitchell isn't quite as physical as his younger counterpart, but he is one of the team's most experiences defensive backs with eight career starts. O'Neal also got first-year playing time on special teams and will be a versatile, physical tackler from the strong safety spot.
Punter A.J. Trapasso launched his Buckeye career with a phenomenal rookie season. Leading OSU to second in the Big Ten in net punting, he averaged 40.4 yards per kick and downed almost half of them inside the 20. Ryan Pretorius and Aaron Pettrey will continue to battle it out all fall to take over the reliable Josh Huston's spot at place kicker. The South African-born Pretorius saw only one kickoff in his backup role last season.
Ginn will also see plenty of time on the field as a return specialist. Whether it is on punts or kickoffs, the dynamic junior will have everyone on the edge of their seat. One of the elite kick returners in the country, Ginn averaged 29.6 yards per kickoff return. He also holds the record as the OSU and Big Ten career leader in punt returns for touchdowns with five. Gonzalez and Jenkins will also split time in the return game on special teams.
Undoubtedly the Buckeyes' biggest schedule test will be a Sept. 9 clash with No. 2/3 Texas in Austin. After a thrilling 2-point loss to the eventual national champion Longhorns at home in 2005, a win in this battle could be a motivational stamp on Ohio State's ticket for the 2006 national title game. "To me Texas is a huge game because it's one that our guys will remember," Tressel said. "We like to have one of those marquee type series going on at all times because those are the types of things the guys will remember. I think that's big in itself."
Without Wisconsin, which has claimed the past two meetings between the teams, on its schedule, OSU gets a big break in conference play. Road trips to Michigan State and Iowa will be obstacles to another Big Ten title, while the Buckeyes hope their home-field advantage comes through in two huge games at Ohio Stadium against defending co-conference champion Penn State and Michigan. Ohio State will have no problem packing the "Horseshoe" after drawing a nation-best 63,649 for its spring game alone. The squad opens the season on its turf against a feisty Northern Illinois squad. "It's important how you come out of the gate any time you begin the season at home," said Tressel. "The first impression that you make is important to yourself and to your fans."