Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Buckeyes optimistic but have lots to replace

By Rusty Miller
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - There are remarkable similarities between the 2004 Ohio State Buckeyes and those that won the national championship just two years ago.

Just like the title team, the latest edition has a small core of talented veterans and a surplus of young, eager prospects. The 2002 team didn't have an established quarterback or receivers and was light on returning starters. The same can be said of the 2004 Buckeyes.

"The funny part about it, in 2002 when we came in here we had a decent group coming back and all of that, but we were coming off being an average team," coach Jim Tressel said. "How were we going to be? I didn't know. An unproven quarterback and all that stuff. And, shoot, we won every game."

No. 9 Ohio State returns just nine starters from last year's team that went 11-2 and finished No. 4 after beating Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. Last spring, the Buckeyes had a record 14 players drafted by the NFL, leaving gaping holes up front, in the secondary and at most of the skill positions.

Yet there is a feeling of history repeating itself in Columbus.

"We're going to shock a lot of people in America this year," defensive back E.J. Underwood said.

The decision as to who will replace Craig Krenzel at quarterback comes down to sophomores Justin Zwick and Troy Smith. Zwick, the most acclaimed quarterback recruit for the Buckeyes since Art Schlichter, is a tall, lean pocket-passer. Smith is a shifty runner and scrambler with a rocket for an arm.

No deadline has been set for when one will be singled out as the starter.

"Coach Tressel gets all that money to make decisions and now he's going to do that," Zwick said with a smile.

Tressel wants to invest his time in one starter, but doesn't eliminate the chance that he may continue to play both.

"Have I ever done it 50-50 at quarterback for a whole season? No," Tressel said, adding, "But we'll see."

The quarterback position isn't the only unsettled spot for Ohio State in 2004. The Buckeyes are a maddening mix of untested and unproven youth alongside tested and proven veterans.

The linebackers, including the established A.J. Hawk and intriguing transfers Anthony Schlegel (Air Force) and John Kerr (Indiana), should be superlative. But most of the defensive line (except for end Simon Fraser) and half the secondary will feature new faces.

"I feel this defense is going to be awesome," said Schlegel, a captain as a sophomore at the academy where he led the team in tackles two years ago.

Dustin Fox is back for a fourth season as a starting cornerback. He said the defense may have to carry the load early in the year until the offensive players get acquainted.

"On offense it takes a little bit more time because there's a lot more timing that goes into an offense," he said. "On defense, we just run around and hit - it's a 'see ball, get ball' kind of a deal. But there's experienced guys over there who will take over and allow that offense to do a good job."

Most of the offensive front and the receivers stood on the sidelines a year ago but there are pockets of experienced talent.

Flanker Santonio Holmes blossomed in the Buckeyes' final two games (10 catches, 158 yards, 4 TDs) while Roy Hall will get the first call to replace go-to receiver Michael Jenkins. Lydell Ross is back at tailback after rushing for 826 yards in 2003, but he averaged 25 yards in Ohio State's two losses while fattening his stats against lesser teams.

Mike Nugent is one of the premier kickers in the nation but it remains to be seen who will do the punting.

During the offseason, Tressel faced public criticism for the first time in his three years at Ohio State because so many players have gotten into trouble off the field. Recruit A.J. Trapasso was arrested twice for underage drinking before he attended his first practice. Promising tight end Louis Irizarry was suspended after he and backup tailback Ira Guilford were arrested for armed robbery of a fellow student.

At least Maurice Clarett will not be a distraction. Clarett, who led the Buckeyes in TDs and rushing as a freshman during the championship season, is committed to getting ready for next year's NFL draft. A year ago, it wasn't until midway through the season that it was known for certain that he wasn't coming back.

Despite all the questions, the Buckeyes are highly ranked and expect to be playing for a Big Ten title when Michigan comes to Columbus on Nov. 20.

"I don't know where the voters had us a couple of years ago in the preseason, but I'll bet it wasn't as high as where we ended up," Tressel said as a broad grin spread across his face. "Maybe the voters just said, we're not going to do that again."

2004 Prep football preview section
Colerain outpolls Elder for top spot
Prep sports results, schedules

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