In a two part series, I plan to provide my own look and evaluation of our team so far this year. The first part will discuss the winter conditioning, and Spring ball. This time period sets the stage for the Fall session. The players are active during the summer but can’t by NCAA rules partake in university organized or sanctioned drills, conditioning, etc. They are left “essentially” on their own. Phase II will discuss what my very early anticipations will be for us in the Fall.
Part I – Picking Up the Pieces; Reconstruction in Every Sense
Not to be insensitive, but the Ohio State football version of hurricane Katrina began for all practical purposes with Ted Ginn’s kick off return, and concluded with Ted Ginn’s kick off return. Actually, our fate was sealed well before that game even started. After the game, in addition to wanting serious explanations, Buckeye fans starting concerning themselves with the ongoing question every Spring, of “What Now?”
“What now” has rarely taken on more meaning and uncertainty. The prevailing thinking is that our team was so loaded last year, if not with this team (the 2006 team and players), then what will happen next year when so many impact players are gone? Gone for different reasons are:
•Troy Smith, Heisman trophy winner, All American, All Big Ten, etc. etc. etc. •Antonio Pittman, easily the most under-rated and under appreciated tailback in college football last year •Ted Ginn Jr., Ohio State’s version of Flash Gordon •Anthony Gonzalez, a.k.a. Mr. Clutch, Mr. Good Hands, Flash Gordon Jr., etc. etc. etc. •T.J. Downing, multi year starter on the offensive line •Doug Datish, multi year starter on the offensive line •Roy Hall, regular contributor at wide out •Drew Norman, highly competent long snapper who almost never got us in trouble by himself •David Patterson, experienced monster on the defensive line, future NFL star •Joel Penton, strong man and experienced contributor who knew offenses well •Quinn Pitcock, All American and easily first round draft choice •Jay Richardson, experienced monster on the defensive line, sure star in the NFL •Tim Shafer •Stan White Jr., brilliant student who was highly versatile and fundamentally sound •Justin Zwick, highly talented guy but we’ll never know for sure just HOW much. Experienced and capable back up.
Before we go on, let’s put things in perspective; most of these guys don’t leave pot-holes behind to fill. Most of them leave craters, with some leaving outright canyons to fill.
This looks very bleak and no one needs more reminders about the Championship game. However, before you take out your gun, allow me to finish about winter and spring, THEN read my upcoming article on what to expect this Fall. For in Part II, I will tell you why I for one am NOT wringing my hands and what to expect this Fall.
Behind the scenes, this Winter has been brutal for Jim Tressel personally. Never shown to the media, only insiders, friends and family, is just how hard and devastating the bowl loss really was for him. As of Spring, he is still not over it. He is still obsessing it. As the Head Buckeye of the entire Buckeye nation, he realizes that if he has no answers, if he can salvage nothing whatsoever from this train wreck, it will have been in vain. Without him finding meaning, this loss actually becomes the God awful sports world terrorist event the rest of us saw.
Fortunately, Jim Tressel is a patient man. He is of the belief that if he can’t get what he wants now, he will work and get it in the future. He is like the character Jack Bauer in the TV show “24” in that he is focused and relentless. The 2007 National Championship is over, but for Ohio State football, an attitude has slowly settled in like a fog that quietly appears during the night.
A closer look inside the Woody Hayes center shows upper classmen working with few smiles on their faces. In their eyes is a look of serious resolve. Their actions are with a purpose. No one needed to push last year’s class as it was laden with upper classmen and starters who were loose, having fun and providing determined leadership with an air of confidence rarely seen. This year, winter conditioning has been more serious with preparation looking more like a group who is determined to exact revenge or regain something lost. The players going into the Fall of 2007 vividly remember their last game when they were pushed around. They were humiliated. Worse yet, they were bullied and laughed at by the opponent.
That fateful night in the desert, neither these guys nor the coaches had any answers that mattered. As the game wore on, confusion and frustration turned to outright shame and surrender. All year, when opponents realized they had to play mighty Ohio State, they quietly were intimidated. Throughout 2006, opponents wanted NOTHING to do with us. And when we played each of them, we gave them ample evidence to justify this level of intimidation and respect. That night in the desert, we never even opened up either bottle of intimidation or respect.
Well, there are places that have to experience and live with this regularly. However, THE Ohio State University is not one of them. Our current crop of players decided they can’t and won’t live with this any more. They are driven unlike any other time in recent memory to not let this happen again, at least on their watch. The upper classmen to-be are driving themselves in what could be mistaken for almost war-like preparation. They are also leaning on underclassmen heavily. This winter and so far this spring, everyone is growing up faster than usual. Mistakes are being less tolerated. Learning experiences are being ground into players like life lessons.
So what does this actually look like during the cold, dark winter months of conditioning and so far this Spring Practice? It looks like this:
•Jake Ballard has emerged as a blocker with the focus and determination of Orlando Pace and the hands and route running talent of Ben Hartsock. He has been relentless in seeking pancake blocks while running soft, almost perfect pass routes the next play while seemingly having super glue on his fingers. He has an ability to concentrate that is most unusual and is developing, strong, soft, sure hands. He has quickly earned a lot of respect by defenses. Give him a wide berth and he catches and runs for 10 yards. Take him on one on one and you’ll get a good look at the sky. •Kirk Barton and Alex Boone have assumed unofficial leadership and role model positions. Barton sustained a very minor knee injury that has hampered his practice time but he is highly animated about each play. Alex Boone has apparently grown up and learned from his experiences both on and off the field. His gut told him to make certain adjustments in the National Championship while coaches and other player advised against it. As it turns out, Boone’s gut was right most of the time. The result of this is he is playing with a level of confidence the coaches could have only dreamed of previously. He too has become animated along with Barton. Some people are saying these two are providing more leadership on the offensive line so far than any other in the last five years. Time will tell, but I really like what I heard. •Jim Cordle is really coming on as the replacement for Datish. The coaches love his style and work ethic. •Ray Small is supposed to be almost as fast as Ginn and with just as much as playmaking/play/breaking skills. I will believe this when I see it, but the corners and safeties who covered both are the ones starting the rumor, not me. •Albert Dukes has finally gotten serious about being in college and looks like the next Santonio Holmes. He was worked hard in the off season, particularly the film rooms to better “learn the game.” •Anderson Russell, who is still recovering from ACL surgery, appears headed toward where he left off last year – another superior DB in a long line of superior DB’s under Jim Tressel •Chris Wells has been only watching due to a nominal ankle sprain. •Maurice Wells really wants to step in and is right now at #1, but that is only because Beanie is nursing his ankle. •Curtis Terry is proving to be really fast off the ball and has been studying film relentlessly. Expect to see a lot of him this Fall •Also, the following people are just simply and flat out impressing the coaches and will see SIGNIFICANT playing time this Fall; Dexter Larimore, Donald Washington, Lawrence Wilson, Ross Homan
Pleasant Surprises This Spring
•Kurt Coleman - DB •Chimdi Chekwa DB •Dexter Larrimore – DL •Antonio Henton – QB •Tyler Moeller – DB •Austin Spitler – LB •K.C. Christianson - TB
Also just for the record, we have an enormous amount of injuries that have kept many, many people out of practice and contact. FORTUNATELY, the vast majority of these are minor. Jim Tressel has said publicly for the last two years he now is super conservative about playing injured people in the Spring, so expect to not see quite a few key players in the Spring Game. This includes Beanie Wells, who has a mild ankle sprain.
Yes, I know I have left out a number of people and a number of positions. It is by design, as it leaves me with an excellent lead-in to my next article, of what I will be expecting, projecting and anticipating. It will be published shortly after the Spring Game, even though my thoughts are pretty well solidified. And, yes, you do remember me saying earlier in this article I am not wringing my hands, even though we lost a lot of people. I’ll tell you why, in a week or so.
The final note; DO NOT underestimate the resolve that this young, emerging team has. DO NOT underestimate the resolve of the coaches. This was not simply a game where we got our head handed to us and limped off only to regroup this Spring. There are MANY people in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center that have spent the winter fuming and determined. Personally, I like that. A LOT!