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July 29, 2008
THE SCHEME: Jim Bollman is the coordinator, but Jim Tressel's fingerprints are all over the offense. The Buckeyes have come a long way from their "3-yards-and-a-cloud-dust" days, featuring a unit that has as many varied looks as anybody in the nation. The arrival of heralded quarterback recruit Terrelle Pryor likely means Ohio State will revert to some of the spread schemes it used when Troy Smith piloted the ship from 2005-06. That worked out well, as Smith won the Heisman in 2006 en route to taking the Buckeyes to the BCS title game.
STAR POWER: Is there a better running back in America than junior Chris Wells? He rambled for 1,609 yards and 15 TDs last season, and his 222-yard effort vs. Michigan means he'll never again have to buy a meal in Columbus. And get this: Wells did it all last season on a bum ankle and with a broken bone in a hand. Just think of what this freakish combination of power and speed will do when he's 100 percent – 2,000 yards and the Heisman Trophy, anyone?
IMPACT NEWCOMER: All eyes are on Pryor, the No. 1 recruit in the nation. Ohio State won a protracted and highly publicized battle with Michigan and Penn State for Pryor's signature. News flash: Pryor didn't come to Columbus to redshirt. That means returning starter Todd Boeckman is going to have to share his seat, even though he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the media. Look for Ohio State to handle Pryor the same way Florida did Tim Tebow during his freshman season in 2006, getting 10-15 snaps a game. That plan worked well for the Gators, who won the BCS national title. And Tebow proceeded to win the Heisman as a sophomore last season. Hmmmm.
IT'S HIS TIME: The legacy of great Buckeyes wide receivers is long. Recent vintage has given us Joey Galloway, Terry Glenn, David Boston, Michael Jenkins, Santonio Holmes and Ted Ginn Jr. Senior Brian Robiskie is ready to join that vaunted fraternity. He emerged as a top target last season, grabbing 55 passes for 935 yards and 11 TDs. Robiskie will have ample opportunity to amp up those numbers if defenses sell out to stop the run. And if foes opt to blanket Robiskie, blue-collar counterpart Brian Hartline is equipped to make them pay.
STRONGEST AREA: The line will be killer. NFL scouts already are clamoring for left tackle Alex Boone, center Jim Cordle and left guard Steve Rehring. Right guard Ben Person is just a notch below that trio. The only hole to fill is at right tackle, but staffers feel sophomore Bryant Browning – from Cleveland Glenville, which has sent so many big-time players to Columbus –will prove more than capable.
BIGGEST PROBLEM:The offense is searching for a fullback, but the coaches will find some big lug to serve as Wells' escort. The $64,000 question in Columbus: Can Ohio State make effective use of Pryor without disrupting the chemistry of what looks like a dynamite attack? Florida was able to pull it off because then-starting quarterback Chris Leak had the disposition to make it work. And Tebow is a team guy. Can Boeckman and Pryor co-exist?
OVERVIEW: Wells is the focal point of the offense, which means he has to stay healthy. But when he needs a blow, there are several capable replacements - including sophomore Brandon Saine. He's the team's fastest back and could see an expanded role as a receiver. Senior Maurice Wells also is a viable option. With the ground game humming behind a strong line, it will be key for Boeckman to play within himself. The last we saw of him, Boeckman was floundering. In the last three games of '07, he committed seven turnovers (six picks and a fumble) with just two touchdown tosses. Not good. Now, Pryor will be looking over his shoulder.
THE SCHEME: Ohio State operates out of a 4-3 scheme, and coaches like to rely on the front four getting pressure without benefit of the blitz. That allows the secondary to play more varied coverages. But the Buckeyes aren't averse to mixing things up and bringing heat at unconventional times from unconventional places.
STAR POWER: Senior middle linebacker James Laurinaitis already is considered an Ohio State great. That he shunned the NFL and opted to return for his senior season cements his status as a legend. Laurinaitis is coming off a stellar season that saw him claim Big Ten defensive player of the year honors as well as the Butkus Award. He won the Nagurski Award in 2006. His trophy case should get even more full after this season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: It will be difficult for any newcomer to have much of an impact on this veteran squad. But keep an eye on true freshman linebacker Etienne Sabino, who enrolled early and impressed in spring drills. He could be a key player off the bench at strongside linebacker behind new starter Curtis Terry for an outstanding corps that also features Marcus Freeman on the weak side.
IT'S HIS TIME: With end Vernon Gholston gone early to the NFL after notching a school single-season record 14 sacks last season, the role of tormenting quarterbacks has fallen to junior end Lawrence Wilson. He was primed to break out last season, but his season ended with a broken leg in the opener. Wilson's skills remind many of former Ohio State great Will Smith, with a quick initial step to the outside coupled with a powerful inside punch.
STRONGEST AREA: All three units are worthy of mention, but the secondary may be a cut above all of them. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins, as with Laurinaitis, shocked many by opting to return for his senior season. Jenkins is a prototype NFL corner, blending good size (6-1/201) with good speed. The safety tandem of Kurt Coleman (strong) and Anderson Russell (free) often gets overlooked, but their presence allows Jenkins to play more aggressively knowing he has his back covered. Junior Andre Amos is one to watch at the other corner spot. He missed most of last season with a knee injury but has impressed. Amos could win the job over junior Donald Washington, who could face discipline after encountering off-field issues.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: If you look hard enough, you can find a few nits to pick. One of the biggest is the production of the tackles. It would help if the big guys became more proficient at generating pressure up the middle. The quartet of Todd Denlinger, Nader Abdallah, Doug Worthington and Dexter Larimore are back in the middle, but they need to generate more than the five sacks they combined for last season.
OVERVIEW: It will be difficult to top last season's defense, which ranked No. 1 in the nation by allowing just 233.0 yards and 12.7 points per game. But it's possible, given the array and abundance of talent that's on hand. One area staffers are emphasizing is turnovers (the Buckeyes generated only 19 takeaways in '07). But as long as this defense holds the line on last season's numbers, the Buckeyes will be poised for at least a share of a fourth consecutive Big Ten title.
Kicker Ryan Pretorius is steady and dependable – 18 of 23, including 6-for-7 from beyond 40 yards – but he had four attempts blocked last season. A.J. Trapasso enters his fourth season as the punter, coming off a season in which he averaged 41.5 yards and was a Ray Guy semifinalist. The one area that needs the biggest improvement is kick returns. Ohio State ranked 118th in the nation, averaging just 17.7 yards per return. That's shameful for a roster that teems with athletic ability. Wide receiver Ray Small will get another shot, but look for Saine and Maurice Wells, among others, to get looks. Punt returns are in good hands with veterans such as Robiskie, Hartline and Small. The coverage units also need to get better. Ohio State gave up two kickoff returns for touchdowns and a punt return for a score.
Tressel has shown in seven seasons that he may deserve a spot alongside Woody Hayes in Buckeyes lore when all is said and done. Tressel already has delivered a national title (2002) and gotten Ohio State to two more BCS title games (2006, 2007). And don't forget about the four Big Ten titles. Even better: He has mastered Michigan, owning a 6-1 record vs. "that school to the north." Tressel has built a stable staff that is a good blend of age and youth. Offensive coordinator Jim Bollman, quarterback coach Joe Daniels (who is battling health problems) and defensive coordinator Jim Heacock are sage hands. Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is one of the game's rising stars and is on the fast track. Assistant head coach/receivers coach Darrell Hazell also is one to watch.
The showdown at USC – the schools' first meeting since 1990 – will be one of the most anticipated regular-season games in recent memory. Even if the Buckeyes lose, there will be ample time for them to crawl back up the polls. If Ohio State wins, it may ride atop the polls at No. 1 all the way to the BCS title game. Why? Because after the visit to L.A., the Buckeyes have only two truly scary games: at Wisconsin and at Illinois. The Badgers have been an especially troublesome foe, winning three of the past five meetings. Ohio State should be motivated to whip Illinois after the Illini toppled the top-ranked Buckeyes last season in Columbus. What about the visit from Penn State, you ask? Well, the Nittany Lions are 0-7 in the Horseshoe since joining the Big Ten. Enough said. The season-ending game with Michigan? Tressel is 6-1 vs. the Wolverines, including 3-0 in Columbus. He's a lock to make it 7-1. Cue the fight song!
Go ahead and sing a few bars of "Carmen Ohio." And stop by the Varsity Club on West Lane Avenue for a couple of tall, cold ones. This looks like a great team, and the excitement along the banks of the Olentangy is more intense than usual. This edition of the Buckeyes may be better than the previous two, which advanced to the BCS title game. But unlike the 2006 and 2007 Buckeyes who got thumped in the championship game, these Buckeyes may finish the job. The roster is full of veteran talent, boasting nine returning starters on both sides of the ball. Two cherries on top: the kicker and punter also return. What's it all mean? Ohio State is primed to advance to the title game for the third season in a row.
Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.