Ohio State Post-Spring Analysis: Defense

Yesterday we took a position-by-position look at the Ohio State offense after spring practice. Today, we’ll do the same to the defensive unit, which lost stars such as cornerback Malcolm Jenkins and linebacker James Laurinaitis to NFL.

We’ll also take a look at the OSU special teams in light of the graduation losses of kicker Ryan Pretorius and punter A.J. Trapasso.

Defensive End – To say the Buckeyes have an embarrassment of riches at this position would be an understatement. While most defensive line coaches would kill for one good defensive end, Jim Heacock could have as many as a half-dozen.

Start with Thaddeus Gibson, who looks to be poised for a breakout season in 2009. The 6-2, 240-pounder is a throwback to the snarling, glowering defensive end of yesterday that lived to make the opposing quarterback’s life miserable. It may have been an indictment of Ohio State’s reworked offensive line, but Gibson typically had his way most of the time this spring with a variety of bull rushes, swim moves, head slaps and inside weaves.

Behind Gibson at the rush end spot is sophomore Nathan Williams, who showed his talents this spring like he did last fall – in quick bursts. The 6-3, 245-pounder fought through a hamstring injury during the middle part of camp, but he is the type of player who has a real feel for the game and loves to explode through the ball-carrier with his tightly wound frame.

And if Gibson and Williams aren’t enough, the Buckeyes found another rush end this spring in sophomore Solomon Thomas. You know the old saying about the light coming on? The light came on for Thomas and he exploded during the April 18 jersey scrimmage with an amazing seven sacks. Then, just to prove that wasn’t a fluke, the 6-5, 240-pounder got another one in the spring game, throwing quarterback Joe Bauserman for a 17-yard loss.

On the other side, Cameron Heyward seemed a lot more comfortable this spring. After an excellent freshman campaign in 2007, Heyward leveled off a little last year. Now, he looks to be poised for a breakout season of his own. The 6-6, 287-pounder also exhibited a little bit of swagger, squaring off against sophomore offensive tackle Mike Adams during one particular spring afternoon and repeatedly getting under Adams’ skin. The constant needling resulted in a pair of dust-ups between the two, but there was no doubt Heyward was getting the better of his offensive teammate. If he can be as disruptive to the opposition this fall, the Buckeyes will be in very good shape.

Behind Heyward is a trio of players long on potential. Unfortunately, the jury is out on Rob Rose, Lawrence Wilson and Keith Wells.

Rose is a senior and was ready to contend with Heyward for the starting position before a knee injury early in camp slowed him. He returned to contact drills later in the spring but was clearly slowed by the injury. Rose is no stranger to injuries, but he has to come back in the fall ready to play for the Buckeyes to take full advantage of their depth at the defensive end position.

Likewise, Wilson remains a question mark. When he is healthy, the 6-4, 275-pounder has shown flashes of greatness. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been healthy for the past two years. Wilson broke his leg in the opening game of the 2007 season, and then blew out a knee against Purdue last year and missed the final six games. Wilson has the ability and the mentality to be one of Ohio State’s defensive leaders this season, but two major rehabs in as many seasons? It’s asking a lot for him to return and be anything near 100 percent.

Should neither Rose nor Wilson be full-go, the spotlight could fall to Wells. But the 6-5, 210-pound sophomore is no stranger to injury, either. He appeared in only three games during an injury-marred freshman season, and then missed all of spring camp with a shoulder problem.

Defensive Tackle – For the past couple of seasons, interior defensive line players seemed content to simply plug holes and let their teammates pad their tackle stats. That mentality may be over. There were few more vocal players this spring than Doug Worthington, who in his fifth year in the program may be finally assuming a leadership role.

The 6-6, 276-pounder has always been a bit of a tweener – not really athletic enough to play defensive end and not fully given to playing inside. No more. Worthington looks like he has finally embraced the fact that he is a defensive tackle and that bodes well for the Buckeyes. He has always cut an imposing figure and now seems to have the mentality for the position.

The other tackle spot will feature a battle between Dexter Larimore and Todd Denlinger. I like what each player brings to the table but I’ll admit to some disappointment that neither has reached his potential.

Larimore is a thick, 300-pound former wrestling champion, and wrestlers usually make excellent linemen because they understand how to gain advantages with leverage. Yet Larimore had only 15 tackles last season after getting 16 the year before. The good news is that he has 9.0 tackles for loss, including four sacks, among his 31 career stops. I just think he should have more than 31 tackles at this point in his career.

Denlinger has been held back because of a number of injuries. He has averaged 11 games per season during his three-year career, but the kinds of injuries he has sustained have sapped his natural ability and he has only 24 career tackles. I would have expected three times that many by now. Again some good news: Denlinger appeared 100 percent this spring, so much so that the coaching staff used him some as a blocking tight end. You wouldn’t think they would risk a fifth-year senior doing that if they weren’t convinced he was healthy.

The Buckeyes like to rotate their tackles and that means redshirt freshmen like Garrett Goebel and Willie Mobley may get the opportunity for playing time this fall. Goebel came into the spring with the promise of challenging for a starting job, but Mobley turned several heads with spirited play that included a four-tackle, one-sack performance in the spring game.

Linebacker – Losing players the caliber of Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman is a daunting task, but the Buckeyes have recruited so well the past couple of years, the transition may be more seamless than you think.

First of all, while Heacock continues to refer to the 4-3 alignment as his base defense, the argument could be made the Buckeyes feature many more looks more often than the 4-3. For that reason, it’s an exercise in futility to try and guess the linebacker rotation that will be utilized in the fall. Nevertheless, when the 4-3 is the featured package, the starters – based on what transpired during the spring – will likely be Austin Spitler in the middle flanked by Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.

Spitler has been groomed as Laurinaitis’ replacement in the middle for the past several seasons, and while he isn’t the flashiest player on the field, the 6-3, 234-pound senior has excellent instincts and a lunch-bucket mentality that serves him well. You don’t notice Spitler much when he’s on the field, but he does everything well and has full confidence of the coaching staff to make the defensive calls. Probably his only drawback is trying to be too technical rather than letting the game flow to him.

Homan is as steady as they come on the weak side although you would like to see what he could do without some sort of nagging injury. Like Spitler, Homan is not flashy. He simply gets the job done, especially against the run. If it’s flash you want, Rolle would be more to your liking. He made his first impact as a bone-jarring tackler on special teams, and if he can transfer that mentality to the defense, the Buckeyes will have themselves as excellent replacement for Freeman. What I like best about Rolle is that he is always in attack mode. If there was a knock on Freeman, he was more a read-and-react type player and sometimes had to make the tackle from behind. Rolle seems better at sticking his nose into the pile and keeping the ball-carrier in front of him.

You sometimes needed a scorecard to keep track of the linebackers this spring, and for that reason pinning down a specific rotation remains difficult. Etienne Sabino started out playing in the middle and outside, but near the end of spring camp, the coaching staff tried to simplify things for the 6-3, 232-pound sophomore and he was used exclusively in the middle. It would seem to be Spitler, Sabino and highly regarded freshman Storm Klein at the Mike position.

Homan will be on the weak side and Rolle on the strong side when OSU features a straight-up alignment, but Rolle can also play the weak side. Sophomore Andrew Sweat also got significant reps this spring. True freshman Zach Boren was injured all spring, so it’s impossible to tell where he fits into the mix.

Of course, there will be times when the Buckeyes feature alignments with only two linebackers, sets with the so-called Leo linebacker when Gibson, Williams or Thomas drop back off the line of scrimmage or a crowded look that features the so-called star position featuring either Tyler Moeller (considered a linebacker) or Jermale Hines (known primarily as a safety). All of the different looks are designed for two reasons: to keep the opposition off-balance and maximize Ohio State’s talent by getting the best players on the field at the same time.

For all of the flak Heacock gets, he must be doing something right. Since he took over as defensive coordinator before the 2005 season, OSU has finished no lower than sixth nationally in scoring defense.

Star – Plenty of players had breakout springs, but none played better and more consistently than Moeller. Ever since he was named the state’s defensive player of the year at Cincinnati Colerain in 2005, I’ve been trying to figure out how a guy who is listed (and generously so) at 6-0 and 216 pounds can be a bona fide force at Ohio State. I still haven’t figured it out. He just is.

Moeller is one of those guys who just have a knack for knowing where the football is going to be. He seems extremely instinctive for being in the right place at the right time, and that ability showed up time and time again during spring practice. A week before the spring game, Moeller had 11 tackles in the jersey scrimmage. Then he had a Scarlet team-leading eight tackles that included two for loss and one sack in the spring game.

Moeller’s excellent performances were tempered somewhat by the fact that Hines did not have the same kind of spring. In Hines’ defense, he was nicked up a little bit and the OSU coaching staff still believes the 6-2, 210-pound junior is a defensive star-in-waiting. He can no longer rest on his athletic potential, however, if he wants to continue to get reps at the star position. Moeller has seen to that.

Free Safety – Normally when you have returning starters, fans tend to look upon that as a good thing. Some in the Buckeye Nation, however, have turned ugly on Anderson Russell especially after his ill-advised try for an interception at the end of the Fiesta Bowl resulted in the winning touchdown for Texas.

Despite that fact, Russell remains the starting free safety and it appears doubtful anyone will take that position from him in the fall. Personally, I don’t think Russell is the same player he was before a major knee injury in 2006. Still, he doesn’t get the credit he is due for being a pretty decent free safety. All he did last year was register 67 tackles (tied for fourth on the team) and snag a pair of interceptions (tied for third on the team).

I still like Russell in run support but am like almost everyone else in believing he is average at best in pass coverage. Nothing I saw this spring changed my mind on those two areas. Opposing teams are going to throw at Russell – a lot – this fall and the one area where he could really help himself is catching the ball. He has dropped at least a half-dozen potential interceptions over the past couple of seasons.

As much as the coaching staff likes Russell, it was eager to see if Aaron Gant could put any heat on the incumbent starter this spring. Unfortunately, the impact Gant had hoped to make as he prepares to enter his senior season never happened. He suffered an injury and was overshadowed by redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson, who appeared to have a breakout spring. Johnson made several outstanding plays while toiling on the second-team defense, and he made them despite missing some action with a sometimes-balky hamstring.

Sharing time with Johnson at the free safety spot was sophomore Rocco Pentello, who also had a steady spring. Pentello will likely see most of his action on special teams, though, and his big moment came when he returned a botched field goal snap for a touchdown during the next-to-last week of spring ball.

True freshman Jamie Wood’s first spring as a Buckeye was interrupted by an injury sustained early in camp. Wood returned for the final week of practice, and even chipped in with a solo tackle for the victorious Gray team in the spring game. He will get more of a chance to show what he can do this fall.

Strong Safety – Kurt Coleman will continue to patrol the strong safety position, and he is one of the leading candidates for defensive captain. Perhaps the best thing about Coleman is his work ethic. Each year he has been in the program, he has gotten a little bit better. That is because he does the work he needs to do in the weight room and the film room. There is no coincidence that he has set career-best marks each season he has been a Buckeye, topped off by last year’s 78 tackles (third on the team behind Laurinaitis and Freeman) and a team-leading four interceptions.

If I have one overall knock on Russell (6-0, 205) and Coleman (5-11, 188) it would be their relative lack of size. The Buckeyes need to be especially wary of teams with agile tight ends and big, fast slot receivers.

Should Ohio State want to show a bigger look, it has to look no further than Hines, who spent some time at the strong safety position when Coleman was nursing a minor injury. There had been some pre-spring talk of Coleman possibly moving to a cornerback spot, which would open the strong safety position but that never materialized.

Aaron Gant had hoped to make an impact this spring as he prepares to enter his senior season. But he suffered an injury (reportedly a knee that will have to be scoped) and was overshadowed by redshirt freshman Orhian Johnson, who appeared to have a breakout spring. Johnson made several outstanding plays while toiling on the second-team defense, and he made them despite missing some action with a sometimes-balky hamstring.

Also in the mix at strong safety is Zach Domicone, another redshirt freshman. The 6-3, 215-pound Domicone has the distinction of being the Buckeyes’ biggest defensive back, and he surprised some people this spring by getting some first-team reps. Meanwhile, sophomore Nate Oliver got shuffled back, missing most of the spring with an arm/shoulder injury.

Cornerback – Going to sleep on Taurian Washington’s long touchdown reception notwithstanding, Chimdi Chekwa has the makings of a really, really good cornerback. It’s kind of funny that we don’t think of Chekwa as a returning starter, but he started in place of Donald Washington at the beginning of last season and never relinquished the spot.

As a result, Chekwa gave Jenkins a run for the unofficial title of team’s best cover man. The coaching staff has never been reluctant to put Chekwa on an island in man coverage, and he has 15 pass deflections over the past two years while 50 of his 55 career tackles have been solos.

The staff wants Chekwa to be more aware of run support and improvement in that area was one of his spring goals. He will have to continue to work on balancing run support and pass coverage – sucked in by play action was why he was beaten so badly by Washington in the spring game. Still, Chekwa was steady all spring as well and I have no doubt he will continue to draw the opposition’s top receiver in the fall.

On the other side, with the unenviable task of trying to replace Jenkins, will be either Andre Amos or Devon Torrence. Amos may have nosed ahead by the slightest of edges after an excellent spring, and there is no doubt he has an advantage because he is a senior. But the coaching staff cannot afford the luxury of counting on Amos in the fall. The 6-1, 183-pounder has not been able to stay on the field, and brittle knees have limited him to only eight games over the past two seasons.

Make no mistake: Amos has the tools and physical gifts to play corner and play it well. But with his history of injuries, the coaching staff simply must hedge its bet and keep the position battle open with Torrence, who proved again this spring that he can cover just about any receiver step for step.

If Amos remains healthy and secures the starting nod, look for Torrence to be the No. 1 backup at both corner positions as well as play a prominent role in the Buckeyes’ nickel and dime packages.

The Amos-Torrence battle also involved redshirt freshman Travis Howard at the beginning of the spring, but Howard was shuffled back. That is no knock against his ability – simply that Amos and Torrence have seniority. Howard is expected to begin making a contribution to the Buckeyes this fall on special teams.

One of the most pleasant surprises this spring was the play of sophomore Donnie Evege, who has been plagued by injury for most of the two years he has been a Buckeye. He has a lot of catching up to do depth chart-wise, but Evege had a handful of standout moments this spring.

The Buckeyes also appear to have a good, young prospect in freshman C.J. Barnett. The 6-0, 185-pounder needs to pack a few pounds onto his frame, and there were times when he was out of position. But for the most part, Barnett held up well and made his share of plays during the spring.

One of the deficiencies at corner is the same one that plagues the safeties – relative lack of size. Of the players expected to start, Amos is the tallest at 6-1 while Russell in the only one who tips the scales at more than 200 pounds. That could mean some position jockeying to ensure the 6-2, 210-pound Hines gets into the lineup as much as possible.

Special Teams – I call it the “Nooge Factor,” but I was never quite comfortable with Pretorius as the Buckeyes’ placekicker. I had nothing whatsoever against Ryan, who was always more than accommodating to the media and generally pleasant to be around. It’s just that when you are asked to follow Mike Nugent, the most prolific kicker in program history – well, let’s just say Nooge was a tough act to follow.

Pretorius did well enough, leading OSU in scoring in both 2007 and 2008, and he converted 34 of 44 field goals and 88 of 90 PATs during his career. His lifetime field-goal percentage of 77.3 ranks second only to Nugent (72 of 88, 81.8) and his PAT percentage of 97.9 is tied with Nugent for fourth all-time. Tim Williams (1990-93) holds that record (143 of 145, 98.6).

Now, the duties fall to senior Aaron Pettrey, who has been handling kickoffs the past couple of seasons. Pettrey has a huge leg – perhaps stronger than Nugent – but he suffers fits of inconsistency. He will boot a kickoff well out of the back of the end zone, and then follow that with a knuckleball that doesn’t even get to the goal line. He had only 13 touchbacks among 74 kickoffs last season, and that just doesn’t seem nearly enough for a guy whose leg is as strong as Pettrey’s.

Field goals were another matter. Pettrey was 7 for 8 on three-pointers last fall, including a perfect 4 for 4 from 40 to 49 yards and 2 for 3 from 50 yards and out. Did you know Pettrey has four career three-pointers from 50 or more, and that is tied for second in Ohio State history? (Nugent is the all-time leader with eight.)

The only problem I see with such a strong-legged kicker is that Tressel may choose to get conservative when his team gets into scoring position. Knowing you have a kicker who is consistent from 50 yards is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a tremendous weapon for sputtering offenses. On the other, it may sometimes prevent a coach from going for six points when he feels he already has three in the bank.

In the punting department, the Buckeyes will miss the services of Trapasso. He was never flashy but remarkably consistent, a facet that bears out in his yearly averages over the course of a four-year career – 40.4 yards per punt in 2005, 40.6 in 2006, 41.5 in ’07 and 41.2 last year.

This spring was supposed to produce a position battle between fifth-year senior Jon Thoma and redshirt freshman Ben Buchanan, but it appeared the job was Thoma’s to lose as spring ball began. The good news is that the former walk-on did everything asked of him to hold onto the job. Thoma averaged 41.7 yards on seven kicks in the April 18 jersey scrimmage and came back a week later to average 40.7 yards on three attempts in the spring game.

One other thing about Thoma: Like Nugent, he is an excellent all-around athlete. He played four years of soccer and baseball in high school, and was also a member of the swimming and track teams. One afternoon during spring practice, Thoma was fooling around with the other specialists and showcased a strong throwing arm – 40 yards on the dead run. If Tressel ever wants to gamble with a fake punt, Thoma would seem to be ready, willing and able to pull off any variety of trick plays.

In addition to his punting duties, Thoma will also serve as Pettrey’s holder on field goals and PATs. Jake McQuaide is the long snapper, giving the Buckeyes three former walk-ons as their principal specialists in the kicking game. (You may insert here whatever recruiting criticism you deem necessary for that anomaly.)

Kickoff returns will be the primary purvey of Lamaar Thomas, who quietly led the Buckeyes in that department last season. Unfortunately for Thomas, he never got to showcase the reason why teammates called him “Flash” because OSU seldom gets much out of their kickoff return game. Thomas averaged a paltry 21.6 yards on 16 returns while the Buckeyes averaged 19.2 yards as a team. That was next-to-last in the Big Ten, 108th nationally out of 119 Division I-A schools, and borderline criminal for a team that has so many speedsters like Thomas, Torrence and freshman James Jackson. I’m just not so sure it’s going to get any better in 2009. Between the Scarlet and Gray squads in the spring game, the average of 17.4 yards on five kickoff returns.

Punt returns will likely be a different story. Ray Small led the Big Ten last season in punt return average, and that included a 69-yard return for a touchdown against Ohio and an 80-yard return against Michigan. How good was Small last season returning punts? Throw out those two big returns and his average was still 9.8 yards per return, good enough to have ranked fourth in the Big Ten.

Best of all, the Buckeyes may revisit the strategy of dropping two return men on punts the way they did in 2006 when Anthony Gonzalez provided protection against kicking away from Ted Ginn Jr. Sophomore receiver DeVier Posey fielded plenty of punts during spring practice drills and could team with Small to present a formidable one-two return punch this fall.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State receiver and track athlete Chris Sanders, who turns 36 today.

Christopher Dwayne Sanders was born May 8, 1972, in Denver, and he excelled in a number of sports at Montebello High School in his hometown. He was a two-sport star at Ohio State, excelling in football and track. Sanders, nicknamed “Tippy Toes” because of the way he ran, was a three-year starter at flanker for the football Buckeyes, and finished his career with 71 receptions for 1,120 yards. In track, he was a member of the 4×100 championship relay team and also set an indoor school record of 26-9¾ in the long jump. That mark, set in February 1992, still stands. Sanders, who was named Ohio State’s athlete of the year in 1994, was selected by the Houston Oilers in the third round of the 1995 NFL draft and played two seasons with the Oilers and five more when the team moved to Tennessee. He appeared in 97 games during his career, making 54 starts, and finished with 177 receptions for 3,285 yards (18.6 yards per catch) and 17 touchdowns. After his NFL career ended, Sanders settled in the Nashville area and became a high school coach. He is currently the receivers coach and head swimming coach at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-male private school in Nashville.

Other luminaries observing birthdays this 8th day of May: comedian Don Rickles is 83; JFK adviser, counsel and speechwriter Ted Sorensen is 81; novelist and short story writer Thomas Pynchon is 72; former MLB pitcher Mike Cuellar is also 72; Seventies pop singer Toni Tennille (one half of Captain & Tennille) is 69; pop singer Gary Glitter (born Paul Francis Gadd and best known for the stadium anthem “Rock and Roll, Part 2”) is 65; jazz icon Keith Jarrett is 64; Earth, Wind & Fire vocalist Philip Bailey, New York Knicks head coach Mike D’Antoni and Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz are all 58; Van Halen drummer Alex Van Halen is 56; former Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Bill Cowher is 52; Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith is 51; NFL Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott is 50; actress Melissa Gilbert (Laura Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie”) is 45; NASCAR driver Bobby Labonte is 45; pop singer Enrique Iglesias is 34; New York Mets pitcher John Maine is 28; San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is 27; and Dallas Cowboys running back Felix Jones is 22.

Today also would have been Ohio State offensive lineman Korey Stringer’s 35th birthday.

AND FINALLY

** California’s Memorial Stadium in Berkeley is undergoing some temporary seismic improvements to guard against potential major earthquake damage. That’s comforting news especially for Ohio State football fans. The Buckeyes are scheduled to visit Cal in 2013.

** Forgive a little Ohio State bias here, but why did it take 22 years for Chris Spielman to make it to the College Football Hall of Fame and only 17 for Gino Torretta? Doesn’t everyone know that Spielman is one of the most underrated linebackers ever to play the game while Torretta is quite possibly the weakest Heisman Trophy winner ever?

** Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio is taking a page from mentor Jim Tressel’s book by scheduling some marquee names for upcoming series. The Spartans will take on West Virginia in a home-and-home series beginning in 2014, and have penciled in Alabama for a home-and-home in 2016 and ’17.

** Our old buddy Trev Alberts has a new job. The former Nebraska All-American and ex-ESPN analyst was been named athletic director at Nebraska-Omaha.

** The University of Washington recently announced it was cutting its men’s and women’s swimming programs, a cost-cutting move that will save the school an estimated $1.2 million per year. U-Dub still has to cut $1.6 million more from its athletic budget, according to university officials. This from the same school that just ate $1 million to buy out fired head coach Tyrone Willingham’s contract before giving new coach Steve Sarkisian a five-year deal worth $10 million plus incentives.

** There is no doubting Tiger Woods as the No. 1 drawing card in professional golf. But someone at ESPN is going to have to temper the network’s constant drum-beating of Woods every time he tees it up. Yesterday during the first round of The Players Championship, a headline at ESPN.com read, “Tigers Lurks At Players.” A quick check of the leader board at that time found Woods finished with his round and in a tie for 29th place at 1-under par, five shots behind the co-leaders. He finished six shots behind first-round leader Ben Curtis. I don’t believe that qualified as “lurking.” Woods is unquestionably the best golfer in the world right now, and whenever he beats Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships, he will have earned the right to be called the greatest of all time. If Tiger is in contention, that’s great. I know that’s good for the game. But when he’s not in contention, he should be treated as such. I’m tired of watching 18-hole coverage of an also-ran at the expense of guys who actually have a chance to win the tournament.

** According to Playboy magazine, there are five schools in the Big Ten on its list of the Top Party Schools for 2009. Ohio State isn’t one of them. Wisconsin is No. 6 followed by Iowa at No. 9, Penn State at No. 13, Michigan State at No. 19 and Indiana at No. 24. Even Ohio University made the list at No. 18, most notably for its annual Halloween blowout. The top party school on the list? Miami (Fla.) because of its proximity to South Beach and “hard-bodied coeds laying out on the campus lake between classes.” Here is the entire top 25.

Ohio State Football Post-Spring Analysis: Offense

Ohio State spring football practice is less than two weeks in the rearview mirror but the analysis continues regarding the 15 days of drills through which Jim Tressel put his Buckeyes. Thanks to Tressel’s decision to open the doors to practice, it was much, much easier to formulate opinions on position battles and exactly which players were doing well and which ones weren’t.

Let’s concentrate first on the offense.

Quarterback – The obvious questions were about Terrelle Pryor and whether he had improved upon his throwing mechanics. The simple answer is yes.

Evidently true were the reports we heard about all of the time Pryor spent over the winter in the film room, studying his mechanics and then working to correct any flaws. He has developed a rapport with assistant quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano – and vice versa – and the results were all full display for most of the spring.

Pryor still needs some work keeping his weight on his back foot when he throws, but he did a much better job of that in the spring game. Additionally, he has learned to hold the ball higher, making his release that much quicker. His release point is also a little higher to take more advantage of his 6-6 frame.

Arm strength is not and never has been a problem. Anyone who says anything to the contrary simply doesn’t what he’s talking about. Still, the kid – and we sometimes forget that’s what he is – has heard the criticisms and tried his best to dispel them this spring. Pryor made every throw in the book in a variety of conditions – indoors, outdoors, with the wind, against the wind, in the pocket, on the run, moving to his left and moving to his right. He has thrown so much over the past couple of months that he experienced a brief bout of tendonitis midway through spring camp but bounced back quickly.

As far as the spring game was concerned, it’s difficult to believe how Pryor could have been much better. The timing was a hair off on his high-arcing touchdown throw to Taurian Washington, but Washington made such a good move to free himself in the end zone that all that mattered was that Pryor was on target with the football.

There is no dispute that the touchdown pass to Ray Small late in the second quarter was a thing of beauty on both ends. Pryor stepped into a frozen rope into a gusting wind that traveled 25 yards and split the receiver between the 8 and the 2 on his jersey. Small did the rest.

Pryor has dedicated himself to improvement in his throwing, and if he makes as much progress between now and fall camp as he did between the end of the Fiesta Bowl and spring ball, there should be absolutely no complaints. Couple his improved throwing with his unquestionable running skills and Pryor has the makings of a truly remarkable player.

Joe Bauserman had a productive spring as well, solidifying his status as Pryor’s backup. Bauserman has a strong, accurate arm, and thanks to all those years as a minor league pitcher, probably has the quickest release on the team.

He struggled a bit during the spring game, completing only 10 of 21 passes for 119 yards, no touchdowns and one interception. That paled in comparison to last year’s spring contest when some fans got overly excited about Bauserman’s line of 7 for 14 for 125 yards and a touchdown.

Bauserman is a good, solid backup but let’s face facts: Tressel is going to build his entire offensive attack around Pryor and if something happens to him, it would be back to square one for the Buckeyes. Bauserman is capable but he’s not Pryor.

The third-team quarterback this spring was walk-on Justin Siems, who hails from Providence High School in Charlotte, N.C. He displayed a strong arm and a willingness to learn, while weaknesses appeared to be some happy feet in the pocket and a long windup before letting the ball go. Siems played in a pro-style offense in high school, and then after getting only lukewarm interest from colleges, enrolled at N.C. Tech Preparatory Christian Academy. Last season, he led Tech to a 14-2 record while completing 83 of 130 attempts (63.8 percent) for 1,604 yards and 14 TDs against only two interceptions.

Siems seems much more comfortable in the pocket than he does on the run, but he has a nice arm and seems to have a good deal of upside. This fall, he’ll be in competition with incoming freshman Kenny Guiton to run the scout team.

Running Back – I will admit that I had my doubts about Boom Herron becoming an every-down tailback in the Big Ten. He is only 5-10 and 193 pounds – almost exactly the same size as Maurice Wells, who struggled throughout his entire OSU career when asked to run between the tackles. Guys that size can have success in the Big Ten (think Mike Hart of Michigan, who played at 5-9 and 202 pounds), but they tend to wear down and become injury-prone.

But Herron proved something (at least to me) during the spring. He ran between the tackles with authority and consistently showed the ability to make reads and cuts on the fly. Herron also has breakaway speed but isn’t afraid to throttle back to allow his protection to catch up. I have seen far too many recent Ohio State backs run up into the backs of their blockers, so it was nice to see somehow exhibit a little patience. That sometimes turns a 2- or 3-yard gain into something much more.

While Herron was doing everything that was asked of him, this spring served as a resurrection of sorts for Brandon Saine. Some fans have given up on the 6-1, 217-pound junior, who was the 2006 high school player of the year in Ohio not to mention the state 100-meter champion the year before he joined the Buckeyes. Saine has enjoyed some success during his OSU career but he’s never been healthy enough long enough to sustain that success. This spring, he stayed on the field and turned in a very creditable performance, especially during the final week of spring camp.

If Herron and Saine can remain injury-free, the Buckeyes could have a formidable one-two punch at tailback already in place with hotly-anticipated freshman help on the way.

It might also be nice to see what veteran walk-on Marcus Williams could do if given a chance. I know he is a walk-on and his chances of seeing playing time ahead of the scholarship players is about as good as mine. But the 5-10, 202-pound product of Ironton, Ohio, has some skills. They were on full display during his 75-yard run to daylight in the spring game. I wonder what Williams could accomplish with a couple of meaningful carries behind the first-team line.

Fullback – I question why this position is not phased out on a team that has so much speed and so many other weapons it can use. That said, it is obvious Tressel wants the option to play smash-mouth football when the situation arises. Therefore, the fullback position remains part of the Buckeyes’ offensive attack.

It could be even more so if Tressel would allow the fullback to run the ball occasionally, giving the Buckeyes another threat in play-action. But I digress. Fullback is nothing more than a glorified blocking position, and the players who line up there know that. They do get involved in the passing game at times – fullbacks caught two passes in the spring game for a total of 6 yards – but it is only a safety valve when nothing else develops and the pocket is collapsing around the quarterback.

True freshman Adam Homan seemed to get most of the first-team reps during the bulk of spring but the team ran so many different formations at different times during drills that it was hard to tell. Walk-on James Georgiades appeared to have some good practices early before he got hurt and leveled off. Redshirt freshman Jermil Martin experiences some good days and some not-so-good days, and even senior defensive tackle Todd Denlinger got into the act at fullback – strictly as a blocker.

If I had to guess, and that’s strictly what it is, I would say Homan and Martin will share the position this fall.

Receiver – If you want to excited about what the Buckeyes can throw at the opposition this fall, look no further than the receiving corps. Lament the loss of Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline to the NFL if you want, but in their places may emerge new, hungry players eager to develop a rapport with Pryor.

Saying DeVier Posey is the next great OSU star receiver would be stating the obvious. Posey still needs some work on the technical part of playing his position, including his downfield blocking. But there is no questioning the 6-3, 205-pounder’s athletic talents. He proved throughout much of the spring that he can catch the ball pretty much wherever it’s thrown and then knows what to do with it after the catch.

The Buckeyes have the luxury of throwing several more receivers into the mix, each of whom brings a little something different to the table.

Perhaps the light has finally come on for Small as he begins to emerge from last year’s self-induced funk. Remember this is the guy Ted Ginn Sr. once characterized as the best receiver he has ever coached. (That, of course, includes Ginn’s son, Ted Jr.) Small has field-stretching speed, more moves than Ex-Lax and provides Ohio State with one of college football’s top punt return threats. All he needs to do is keep his head in the game.

Small isn’t the only speed-burner on the team. Lamaar Thomas isn’t called “Flash” for nothing and freshman James Jackson thrust himself into the mix with a fearless spring that included three catches for 51 yards in the spring game.

And then there is Washington, the 6-2, 179-pound junior that most people had forgotten until he hooked up with Pryor four times in the spring game for 92 yards and a touchdown. Of course, we’ve seen that before. In the 2008 spring game, T-Dub had four receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown. Then, when the season began, he was nowhere to be found. He has three career catches for 46 yards and one TD – all of which came in 2007. Washington needs to take the next step and make himself as indispensable in the fall as he has been the past two springs.

Lost in the shadows this spring was Dane Sanzenbacher, who missed a good chunk of the last part of practice with an ankle sprain. A lot of people scoff at Sanzenbacher, who isn’t the fastest or biggest receiver on the team. Those who scoff do so at their own peril, however, because Sanzenbacher finds ways to get results. He is as steady as they come, presents an excellent target and could have the softest hands on the team.

Another possibility as a possession-type receiver is junior Grant Schwartz, who caught three balls in the spring game.

Tight End – Let’s hope that Ohio State is serious about utilizing the tight end in the passing game because the Buckeyes have legitimate pass-catching weapons at the position.

You need only go back to the 2002 national championship season to witness what kind of diversity you can enjoy if you make your tight end a viable part of the passing attack. Ben Hartsock was the third-leading receiver on that team, and he caught more balls than Chris Vance, Drew Carter or Bam Childress.

In recent years, however, the Buckeyes have been reluctant to make the tight end a primary receiver. That has been due partly to a lack of confidence in the offensive line protection, of course, and a line that continues to be a work in progress could hamstring any efforts to get more throws to the tight ends.

Still, I would like to see Tressel allow Jake Ballard, Jake Stoneburner and Nic DiLillo at least a few moments of practice time with receivers coach Darrell Hazell.

Stoneburner is the wild card. He is a rare player at the position who could stretch the field if he’s allowed to do so. This is quite a burden to place on the young man, but I think Stoneburner could be every bit the pass-catching threat that John Frank was. Every time I saw him this spring, the 6-5, 230-pounder was making a reception. He caught the ball in heavy traffic, he showed leaping ability and he showed enough athleticism to spear a ball out of the air and then make a quick adjustment to get yardage after the catch.

It may be too late to think of Ballard as anything more than an occasional receiver. (After all, he has only 19 catches to show for the previous three seasons.) IMHO, if he is used correctly, Stoneburner ought to have at least that many receptions every year.

Offensive Line – The open offensive line spots were probably the most talked-about position battles of the spring, and the discussion is likely to last well into fall camp.

Michael Brewster seems to have found a home at the center position although I think he would probably rather play guard. Maybe someone will emerge this fall (Jack Mewhort, perhaps?) that will allow Brewster to move out of the center spot. Barring something unforeseen, though, he will be and should be in the middle this year.

Brewster was thrown into a tough situation last season when he was asked to be the starter in week four, but he consistently improved and wound up starting 10 games for the Buckeyes at center. After watching him this spring, there is no reason to believe Brewster won’t continue to improve and become one of the Big Ten’s best. He’s well on his way already.

Likewise, there is no reason to believe anyone other than Justin Boren will occupy the left guard position. The 6-3, 315-pound Boren was an absolute beast this spring, schooling nearly every defensive linemen that got in his way. He plays low, taking full advantage of his strength and leverage, and his footwork is excellent. Best of all, Boren has a little mean streak to him. I don’t mean he’s a dirty player because he’s not. He just brings that kind of me-against-you-and-I’m-going-to-knock-the-snot-out-of-you mentality to an offensive line that has severely lacked that attitude the last couple of years.

On the right side of the line, Bryant Browning and Jimmy Cordle will go into the fall as the starters.

Browning had an excellent spring as he moved from tackle to guard, a position much better suited to his skill set. The 6-4, 312-pounder appears to excel in engaging the opponent and neutralizing him. That is something you really can’t do as a tackle since there are more responsibilities on the edge. Also, Browning seems adept at navigating his way through traffic as a pulling guard. I would be surprised if the junior from Cleveland Glenville hasn’t found a permanent home at right guard.

Cordle remains sort of a wild card. After starting last year at center and then moving to left guard, the senior is being asked to man a third position in less than a year. I’m not totally sold on Cordle at right tackle although I think he can handle the position. I’m just not sure he’s best suited at that particular position.

I will say this: Cordle will play somewhere. He will be one of the leading candidates to be elected captain this fall and very seldom does a team captain go into his senior season without a starting position. With Boren, Brewster and Browning across the front, though, it seems right tackle is the only spot for Cordle.

That is, of course, predicated on how the left tackle position shakes itself out. Before spring drills began, it would have been ludicrous to believe Andrew Miller had a shot at much playing time let alone the starting spot. But after a superlative spring, Miller has indeed pushed his way up the depth chart and into the discussion at left tackle.

Will Miller be the starter against Navy come Sept. 5? It’s possible although I doubt it. Neither Mike Adams nor J.B. Shugarts were recruited to be a backup, and I fully expect the starting position to be decided among those two in the fall.

Adams had some well-chronicled struggles during the early portion of spring camp as the OSU coaching staff threw a little bit of everything at him. He seemed to settle down more down the stretch although he still has to guard against playing too high (a problem for any 6-8 lineman) and he still needs work on his feet.

Shugarts, meanwhile, begged the coaching staff to let him participate in heavy contact drills after rehabbing a surgically repaired shoulder. And while the 6-8, 298-pounder saw some limited action, the staff erred on the side of caution and kept him out of most contact. Shugarts will get his chance to contend for the LT spot in fall camp but he has to guard against trying to make up for lost time and do too much too soon.

And what happens if both players distinguish themselves this fall? Do you shuffle things again and perhaps put one of them at right tackle? And if you do that, what happens to Cordle? And what do you do with Miller if he builds on the spring he just had with a breakout fall camp? All food for thought.

While players continue to jockey for starting positions, it helps that there are a number of viable options as the OSU offensive line builds some depth for the first time in recently memory. Evan Blankenship spent most of spring as the second-team right guard behind Browning while Connor Smith was the No. 2 left guard behind Boren. Andrew Moses was second on the depth chart at center and Josh Kerr played mostly with the second-team line at right tackle. Mewhort also got his feet wet at a couple of positions, but the best bet for the 6-7, 290-pound freshman may be a redshirt season if the Buckeyes think they can get along without him. I’d hate to see Mewhort be forced to waste an entire year of eligibility on just token playing time.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss what we saw this spring on the defensive side of the ball.

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Today’s Buckeye birthday belongs to former Ohio State basketball star Tony Campbell.

Anthony Campbell was born May 7, 1962, in Teaneck, N.J., and became a high school basketball star in his hometown. He signed with Ohio State in 1980 and was a three-year starter for the Buckeyes from 1982-84. The 6-7, 212-pounder earned first-team All-Big Ten honors at forward as a junior and senior, and was a two-year co-captain. Campbell averaged 19.0 points per game in ’83 and 18.6 points in ’84 and finished his OSU career with 1,529 points, good for 14th on the school’s all-time list. He was drafted by Detroit in the first round of the 1984 NBA draft with the 20th overall pick and played 11 professional seasons. Campbell’s best season came in 1989-90 when he averaged 23.2 points and 5.5 rebounds (both career highs) for the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves. He played for the Pistons, Lakers, Timberwolves, Knicks and Mavericks before finishing his career in 1994-95 in Cleveland. Campbell played his 690 NBA games and carried lifetime averages of 11.6 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. After his playing career ended, Campbell went into coaching at the high school level. He currently serves as head coach and athletic director at Bay Ridge Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Other luminaries observing birthdays this 7th day of May: Fifties pop singer Jim Lowe (“The Green Door”) is 82; former NFL quarterback Babe Parilli is 80; Baseball Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams is also 80; U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) is 77; Sixties pop singer Johnny Maestro (lead singer of The Brooklyn Bridge) is 70; soap actress Robin Strasser (Dr. Dorian Lord on “One Life to Live”) is 64; pop and disco singer Thelma Houston (“Don’t Leave Me This Way”) is 66; Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann is 63; boxer-turned-actor Randall “Tex” Cobb is 59; actor Robert Hegyes (Juan Epstein in the Seventies TV show “Welcome Back, Kotter”) is 58; former Cincinnati Bengals receiver and punter Pat McInally is 56; film director Amy Heckerling (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Clueless”) is 55; soap actor Peter Reckell (Bo Brady on “Days of our Lives”) is 54; Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende is 53; soap actor Michael E. Knight (Tad Martin on “All My Children”) is 50; Motörhead lead guitarist Phil Campbell is 48; actress Traci Lords is 41; rock/pop musician Eagle Eye Cherry is 38; Los Angeles Dodgers first baseman James Loney is 25; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is also 25; and Arctic Monkeys drummer Matt Helders is 23.

Those celebrities who have passed into history who shared May 7 birthdays: English poet Robert Browning; German composer Johannes Brahms; Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky; two-time Academy Award-winning actor Gary Cooper; Argentine first lady Eva “Evita” Perón; Academy Award-winning actress Anne Baxter; NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas; “Meet The Press” moderator Tim Russert; and actor Darren McGavin. You may not be familiar with McGavin’s name but you certainly know his work. He had a long career in television and movies, portraying a variety of characters including shady, glass-eyed gambler Gus Sands in “The Natural”, vampire chaser/newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak in “The Night Stalker” television series; and Adam Sandler’s hotel magnate father in “Billy Madison.” But McGavin will likely be best remembered as Old Man Parker, the flustered father who gets son Ralphie a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas in the holiday classic “A Christmas Story.”

AND FINALLY

** Ohio State set a new NCAA record April 25 with a spring-game crowd of 95,722. Alabama, which held the old mark at 92,138 set in 2007, finished second this year with 84,000 in attendance at its spring game. Nebraska was third at 77,670. On the other end of the spectrum was North Carolina, which drew only 2,000 to its spring game. In the Tar Heels’ defense, the game was played March 28 – in the midst of the basketball team’s run to the NCAA Tournament championship.

** To put Ohio State’s record spring crowd into perspective, the average crowd for all of the spring football games at all of the Division I-A schools was just a little more than 13,000.

** A poll on CBSSportsline.com asked which team would win the 2009 Big Ten championship. Ohio State was the runaway winner with 46 percent of the 3,296 votes cast. Penn State was second with 28 percent. Michigan State finished a distant third with 6 percent.

** Indiana head coach Bill Lynch kicked mercurial quarterback-turned-receiver Kellen Lewis off the team for the second time April 27, and this time the move is permanent. Lewis was suspended for four months last year before being allowed to return to the Hoosiers. This time, Lynch has said there will be no reprieve for Lewis, whom many consider IU’s best player. Athletic director Fred Glass supported Lynch’s move, saying the move “underscores that no individual student-athlete, regardless of talent or popularity, is above the expectations of Indiana University.”

** If ESPN.com college basketball writer Doug Gottlieb is right, the Big Ten will be loaded next year. Gottlieb has three conference schools among his early top 10 – Purdue at No. 4, Michigan State at No. 6 and Ohio State at No. 10. About the Buckeyes, Gottlieb writes, “Don’t worry about the loss of B.J. Mullens. The Buckeyes return a great talent in Evan Turner, who returns for his junior season, joining Jon Diebler & Co. to help OSU turn the corner next season.” Gottlieb’s top three: Kansas, Texas and Villanova.

** Gottlieb’s ESPN.com colleague, senior writer Andy Katz, also has three Big Ten teams in his early top 10: Michigan State at No. 2, Purdue at No. 5 and Michigan at No. 9. Other conference teams in Katz’s top 25: Minnesota 16th, Ohio State 18th and Illinois 19th.

** The financially crippled Arena Football League is already on hiatus for a year and teams are beginning to close up shop for good. When/if the AFL returns in 2010, it will be without the L.A. Avengers, a team that has played arena league ball for nine seasons. With the Avengers going out of business, it leaves Los Angeles without a professional football team – unless, of course, you count USC.

** Which brings us to this nugget: You probably know that both former USC basketball star O.J. Mayo and former Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush have gotten their school in NCAA hot water for allegedly taking improper benefits. What you may not know is that the NCAA recently decided to combine the cases to streamline the investigation process. That decision makes it much more likely that one or both of the programs could be forced to forfeit games and championships. In the case of USC football, that could include a pair of Pac-10 titles in 2004 and 2005. Don’t think it means the Trojans would have to give up their 2004 national championship, though. Because the NCAA doesn’t stage a championship in Division I-A football, leaving that to the Bowl Championship Series, forfeits would only affect NCAA record books, conference championships and Pete Carroll’s victory total. It would be up to the commissioners of the BCS to take away the national title and no one believes that will happen. Which brings up a salient point raised by Dennis Dodd of CBSSportsline.com: Because a BCS title is essentially immune from NCAA sanctions, does that ratchet up the incentive to cheat to get one?

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.