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?

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