Friday, August 27, 2004

Deja-'02?


Buckeyes have that familiar feeling of their national title run two years ago

By Colleen Kane
Enquirer staff writer


Brothers E.J. (left) and Brandon Underwood, both of whom starred at Hamilton High School, are back together in the Ohio State defensive backfield. E.J., a junior, may start this season.
The Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH


Quarterback Justin Zwick is one of two players competing for the starting job vacated by Craig Krenzel, who graduated. "Justin's got one of those amazing quick releases. He sees things before I do when I'm standing at practice," coach Jim Tressel says.
Enquirer/STEVEN M. HERPPICH

M O R E   I N F O R M A T I O N
2003 IN REVIEW
Record: 11-2

Date Opponent Result
Aug. 30 Washington W, 28-9
Sept. 6 San Diego State W, 16-13
Sept. 13 North Carolina State W, 44-38 (3 OT)
Sept. 20 Bowling Green W, 24-17
Sept. 27 Northwestern W, 20-0
Oct. 11 at Wisconsin L, 17-10
Oct. 18 Iowa W, 19-10
Oct. 25 at Indiana W, 35-6
Nov. 1 at Penn State W, 21-20
Nov. 8 Michigan State W, 33-23
Nov. 15 Purdue W, 16-13 (OT)
Nov. 22 at Michigan L, 35-21
Jan. 2 vs. Kansas State W, 35-28


By the numbers

25-2 OSU's record the past two years.

14 OSU players taken in the 2004 NFL draft, the most players from one school since the league went to a seven-round draft. Three were first-round picks.

26 Seniors lost from the 2003 season. Thirteen starters, two All-Americans, one Ray Guy Award winner - all gone.

5,097 Yards quarterback Craig Krenzel put up on offense in his career.

38 Yards quarterbacks Justin Zwick and Troy Smith have combined for on offense in their careers.

1 Big Ten preseason Defensive Player of the Year: OSU linebacker A.J. Hawk.

4 OSU's final 2003 AP ranking.

9 OSU's preseason 2004 AP ranking.

25 Consecutive home openers the Buckeyes have won leading up to their Sept. 4 opener against Cincinnati.

16 Consecutive home games OSU has won, dating back to a 2001 defeat against Illinois. The Buckeyes have home games this year against Michigan and Wisconsin, the only two teams they lost to last year.

COLUMBUS - The Ohio State players don't shy away from the words "rebuilding year."

The Buckeyes lost 26 seniors, 13 starters and 14 players to the NFL draft from last year's 11-2 Fiesta Bowl team.

They lost two All-Americans, the player selected the best punter in the country, and a national championship-caliber quarterback. So, yeah, it's a rebuilding year. But...

"But it doesn't mean you should count us out," starting quarterback prospect Troy Smith said.

And not many people have.

Ohio State enters this season with a No. 9 national ranking, mostly because of the strength of its small core and the potential of those players who have been waiting for their turn.

"Replacing those guys that went on to the NFL - we won't replace any of them exactly," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "We need to grow. We need to experience. We need to get beat up on a little bit and learn some lessons, but we're ready to do that."

Offense

There are a lot of questions this year, the most obvious being who will replace Craig Krenzel - the quarterback who passed for 4,493 yards in his career and led his team to a national championship. The position will go to either sophomore Justin Zwick or Smith.

"It's been a couple years you've been sitting in the wings. You finally get that shot, and you want to take what you can get and run with it," Zwick said.

The QBs have combined for just 38 yards of offense: Zwick completed four passes last year; Smith rushed three times for 14 yards. They bring different styles to the team: Zwick is a pocket quarterback with a good arm; Smith is flashier, a big-play maker.

"Justin's got one of those amazing quick releases. He sees things before I do when I'm standing at practice," Tressel said at the start of camp. "Troy makes some plays where you shake your heads. ... The only thing I'm sure of is that if we had a game today, we'd play more than one guy."

Adding to the uncertainty is the loss of top target Michael Jenkins, the school's career receiving yardage leader. But flanker Santonio Holmes, who caught 29 passes for 497 yards in the final six games of last season, looks to step in as the prime receiver.

Branden Joe and Brandon Schnittker return at fullback, and seniors Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall probably will split time at tailback. Ross was last year's leading rusher (826 yards). Hall returns from surgeries on both knees in the offseason after injuries slowed his 2003 performance (316 yards).

The development of a young offensive line that returns only starting center Nick Mangold and tackle Robbie Sims will be key.

"(The younger offensive linemen) are coming along as well as anyone can be expected," Mangold said. "They've got a lot of want to learn. They've got a lot of drive to do well, and that's going to be a big plus for them."

Defense

The Buckeyes lost a lot with the graduation of their All-America Wills - end Will Smith and strong safety Will Allen - and the departure of defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio. But they return a strong few, including the Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in A.J. Hawk. He leads a contingent of linebackers that includes returnees Bobby Carpenter and Mike D'Andrea, and transfers Anthony Schlegel (Air Force) and John Kerr (Indiana).

Hawk (106 tackles) will play behind a defensive line that returns just one starter - end Simon Fraser. The likely line replacements, junior end Mike Kudla, junior tackle Marcus Green and sophomore tackle Quinn Pitcock, have seen some playing time.

Senior Dustin Fox (77 tackles, 3 INT) leads the secondary at one corner, and E.J. Underwood or Ashton Youboty will take over at the other. Nate Salley returns at free safety, while Donte Whitner has the task of replacing Allen.

Special teams

2002 first-team All-American Mike Nugent (16-of-19 FGs, all 28 PATs last year) returns at placekicker. He has set 12 school records and could surpass the career records for points and field goals this season. Josh Huston will try to fill the massive shoes of Ray Guy Award-winning punter B.J. Sander.

Coaching

Tressel has gone 32-7 in three seasons at OSU. Former linebackers coach Mark Snyder assumes the hefty job of defensive coordinator. Former special teams coordinator Luke Fickell moves to linebackers coach. Former Rutgers assistant Darrell Hazell joins the staff as wide receivers coach. Former Miami University offensive line coach John Peterson joins as recruiting coordinator/tight ends coach. And Dick Tressel, older brother of head coach Jim Tressel, becomes running backs coach.

Intangibles

Team chemistry is big with so many inexperienced players, but there seems to be enough veteran leaders to help the team jell. Composure will be key for Zwick and Smith. It will be interesting to see how the newcomers hold up under fourth-quarter pressure with 100,000 people watching.

Make-or-break games

The nonconference games aren't killers and could help break in the team. The North Carolina State matchup is interesting because the Wolfpack must replace QB Philip Rivers. The Buckeyes get Wisconsin and Michigan (their two losses last year) at home, but road games at Iowa and Purdue won't be easy. The Oct. 16 meeting with the Hawkeyes will be a test of how the team has come together in the first half of the season. Preseason rankings already have people calling the Nov. 20 Michigan game the Big Ten championship decider.

E-mail ckane@enquirer.com

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