Season Preview: Ohio State
Sept. 1, 2009
By Larry Watts
All Jim Tressel has done at Ohio State is win. Since the man in the sweater vest began patrolling the Ohio Stadium sidelines in 2001, the Buckeyes have won 81.4 percent of their games, claimed at least a share of five Big Ten titles, played in eight bowl games, including three national championship bouts - including a win in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl vs. Miami - and posted a 7-1 record against rival Michigan.
But the Columbus, Ohio faithful would love to see another national championship. And despite sending off another truckload of players to the NFL, leaving only five returning starters on offense, the Buckeyes have been tabbed as the preseason favorites to win the Big Ten championship. And it all starts with sophomore quarterback Terrell Pryor, a Heisman Trophy candidate and preseason choice as the offensive player of the year in the Big Ten.
OFFENSE: Although the 6-foot-6 Pryor led the Big Ten in passing efficiency (146.5) in 2008, the Buckeyes ranked 105th nationally in passing. Pryor, who needs to think more pass than run, only threw for over 100 yards in six of his 10 starts, averaging less than 8 yards per reception. But on the bright side, he did throw for 12 touchdowns in his 100 completions and he was only picked off four times. He did carry the ball 139 times for 631 yards, second-highest on the team, which are numbers Tressel would like to see come down. While the Buckeyes lost primary weapons Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline, there will be plenty of options at wide receiver for Prior in 2009. Junior Dane Sanzenbacher (21 catches, 272 yards) and sophomore DeVier Posey are ready to step up while senior Ray Small (18 catches, 149) finally got his academics straightened out this summer and could be a big weapon, provided he stays out of Tressel's doghouse. Senior tight end Jake Ballard is on the preseason watch list for the Mackey Award. And don't be surprised to see 300-pounder Todd Denlinger come over and line up at tight end on occasion. Across the front line, sophomore Michael Brewster appears to be the only player returning to his 2008 position. Fifth-year senior Jim Cordle started his Ohio State career as a center, moved to guard last year and now makes the move to right tackle. Junior Bryant Browning makes the move from tackle to right guard. Michigan transfer Justin Boren, a junior, has been a force at left guard since he began getting snaps in the spring. Junior Andy Miller and sophomore J.B. Shugarts are battling it out at the other tackle. Shugarts missed spring drills after undergoing shoulder surgery. Although the running game lost Chris "Beanie" Wells, sophomore Dan Herron (89 carries, 439 yards, 6 TDs) and junior Brandon Saine are not exactly newcomers to the program. Herron is on the Doak Walker Award watch list. If needed, talented freshman Jaamal Berry is waiting in the wings. Redshirt freshman Jermil Martin will lead the way at fullback.
DEFENSE: Linebackers James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman have both moved on to the NFL along with Thorpe Award winner Malcolm Jenkins at safety, but the Buckeyes do have seven starters back in 2009. Even with the NFL departures, linebacker has always been a deep position for the Bucks, but they have taken some big offseason hits. Junior Tyler Moeller was expect to line up on the strong side, but an altercation in a Florida restaurant left him with a brain injury and he is lost for the season. Then (MLB) Austin Spitler, a fifth-year senior and three-year veteran, went down with a strained calf during the second week of fall camp and will be lost for a few weeks. Junior Ross Homan (67 tackles) returns on the weak side while junior Brian Rolle and sophomore Etienne Sabino will probably have to step up. Incoming freshmen Dorian Bell and Storm Klein may be pressed into action. Returning senior safeties Kurt Coleman (78 tackles), who is on the Nagurski and Thorpe Award watch lists, and Anderson Russell (67 tackles) are one of the best tandems in the Big Ten. Coleman led the Buckeyes with four interceptions in 2008. Junior Chimdi Chekwa returns at one corner while junior Devon Torrence and senior Andre Amos are the top contenders at the other spot. All four starters return to the line with juniors Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Hayward operating at end and junior Dexter Larimore working with senior Doug Worthington inside. Gibson came on strong at the end of last season and posted a team-high five sacks. Senior Lawrence Wilson, a former starter, is coming off two major injuries and is expected to be a big contributor on the line.
SPECIAL TEAMS: With the graduation of Ryan Pretorius, fifth-year senior and former walk-on Aaron Pettrey will now handle all of the Buckeyes' field goal opportunities. Pettrey, who is on the Groza Award watch list, previously handled all kicks from long range and was seven of eight last year, including six from 40 yards or longer. He has a career long of 54 yards. On kickoffs, he averaged 62.9 yards per kick with 13 touchbacks. Another former walk-on and fifth-year senior, Jon Thomas, inherits the punting duties. Small averaged 15 yards on punt returns in 2008 while sophomore Lamaar Thomas averaged 21.6 yards on 16 kickoff returns.
MISCELLANEOUS: Buckeye fans have to like the 2009 schedule. Home dates with Navy (Sept. 5) and USC (Sept. 12) will be big tests on the national scale. All of the top Big Ten challengers (Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa), with the exception of Penn State, come into the Horseshoe. The biggest road test will be at Penn State Nov. 7, while Indiana, Purdue and Michigan combined to go 10-26 in 2008 ... Should Ohio State win the Big Ten crown for a fifth time in 2009, it will become the first school to achieve the feat on multiple occasions. Michigan put together a five-year streak from 1988-92 and the Buckeyes had a string of six from 1972-77. Tressel is only the fourth coach in the 113 years of Big Ten football to win five or more titles in his first eight years ... Two up and coming programs, Michigan State and Northwestern, escape Ohio State's Big Ten schedule during the next two years.