The Buckeyes finally kick off in 18 short days, but with some significant roster handicaps. Like, really, really significant: Ohio State's starting quarterback, tailbacks and two wide receivers will enter the Akron game with a combined zero starts amongst them. Before you panic, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? Teach us, history:
The last time Ohio State started a season having to replace a three-year starting quarterback, a starting tailback and its big-play receiver, the Buckeyes made it to the BCS Title game.
That was back in 2007 when Troy Smith, Antonio Pittman and Ted Ginn gave way to Todd Boeckman, Beanie Wells and Brian Robiskie. Ohio State defended its Big Ten title and improbably reached immortality's doorstep a second consecutive time.
Prior to that, the last time Ohio State was faced with the same predicament - replacing a three-year starting signal caller, a starting tailback and a big-play receiver - the Buckeyes won the BCS Title game.
That, as you know and still often fantasize about, was 2002. Steve Bellisari and Jonathan Wells were gone and Drew Carter was - as was frequently the case - out for the year; Craig Krenzel, Maurice Clarett and the already-blossoming Michael Jenkins more than capably took their places. Those replacements from a 7-5 season turned in a perfect 14-0 record. You still remember that night in Tempe as if it just happened. It's been nine seasons. Nine.
Prior to that, the Buckeyes faced the same dilemma in 1996 when the two-headed hydra of Stanley Jackson and Joe Germaine, Pepe Pearson and David Boston had the unenviable jobs of replacing Bobby Hoying, Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George and Biletnikoff winner Terry Glenn.
Those Buckeyes won the Big Ten and got John Cooper back to Pasadena for the first time since 1988, where he beat his former team in one of the best bowl games ever played.
Despite being faced with all of the same roster challenges in 2011, these wildly successful reloading sessions that occurred in Columbus four, nine and 16 seasons ago have scant similarity to what Ohio State will be challenged with this September: Those replacements generally had it harder. The guys this year are in much better position to succeed.
Terrelle Pryor's permanent vacation from Ohio State football combined with DeVier Posey, Boom Herron and Mike Adams' five-game suspensions have turned what should have been the most prolific offense of the Tressel era (the bar wasn't that high - 26th nationally in 2006) into a mystery wrapped in an enigma that will be potentially served up by a two-star QB recruit from the ancient 2004 recruiting class.
When Joe Bauserman arrived at Ohio State, Braxton Miller was barely 11 years old. Taylor Graham was 12. Kenny Guiton, who only materialized on earth once he abruptly showed up at Ohio State a couple of seasons ago didn't even exist. This is the hastiest, most comically improbable QB battle in either reality or fiction going back 20 years, complete with Bauserman playing the role of Paul Blake.
He sits alone at one end of the spectrum: Bauserman's ceiling was to be Pryor's emergency back-up; the good soldier who might come into a game only to and hand off - and only hand off - when game clock needed to be accelerated. He was never intended to be a serious candidate for the primary steward of the Ohio State offense.
At the other end is Miller, who was penciled in as Ohio State's 2011 starting QB back in November of 2007 when it became evident his freshman year in high school that we was going to be one of those freakish four-year starters. He is supposed to be here. He's that recruit Buckeye fans have elevated to mythical status for years by fawning over him without ever having seen him play.
Miller possesses the same ability that Pryor had to bail out a chronically underachieving offensive line with his legs, and by shrinking his acclimation curve in enrolling earlier this year is a serious candidate to start from day one. He's the horse most fans have bet on, because he's the most popular horse. Give Miller the same amount of time in the program that Bauserman (or even Guiton) has had and there's no quarterback competition this season.
Graham has the best arm and the worst legs of the group. His chances are improved by playing behind what would have been the best offensive line of the Tressel era, which may diminish the necessity of mobility. He's also got the whole NFL quarterbacking lineage thing going, which is only as much of an advantage as he allows it to be.
At the same time, Graham was injured and missed time last year as a freshman as well as during his junior and senior years in high school. You can draw several conclusions from that. None of them are good; all of them come with Band-Aids and clipboards.
Finally there's Guiton, who doesn't have a significant tenure, throwing, running or leadership advantage to speak of. The flip side is that his deficiencies are as difficult to pinpoint as his strengths. Guiton is just kind of there. He's the fat part of the normal distribution curve. He's you. He's me.
Historically speaking, Boeckman replacing a Heisman winner who terrorized Michigan three times was a much taller order. When Krenzel took over for Bellisari, we were fatigued from seeing #8 launching left-handed scuds into A-Deck for the better part of three seasons; the bar wasn't all that high. And Hoying's void wasn't adequately filled until Germaine went full-time three seasons later.
Taking over for what would have been a monster year for Pryor is still a challenge, but both Boeckman and Germaine/Stanley had bigger shoes to fill, especially from a team leadership capacity.
VERDICT: The receiving corps isn't in place to bail any of these guys out. This means the long-term answer is going to have to have legs in order to survive.
This one is a lot easier. It starts with Rod Smith, the 6"3 225-lb clearinghouse casualty from the 2010 recruiting class who absolutely took over Sugar Bowl practices in December. Jordan Hall is the most versatile of the candidates and should find himself on the field even when he isn't the feature back. Jaamal Berry has the best combination of slipperiness and size.
Carlos Hyde runs like former Wisconsin tank PJ Hill on a P90X bender and makes this four-back race even more interesting. Unlike the QB situation which is permanent, Herron will return to his rightful spot atop the depth chart at Lincoln. He brings a leadership element that's more valuable in the huddle and has long been regarded as one of the hardest if not the hardest-working player on the team.
History lessons: To this day, no Buckeye has ever replaced or come close to duplicating Eddie George, which is why when some guy at a tailgate inevitably and excitedly compares Smith to Eddie this season, you need to take your finger, shove it in his face and firmly say NO like he's a dog that just pooped on the rug. It's unfair to Smith. Remember when Harold Miner was nicknamed "Baby Jordan" by Nike? That was stupid too. NO. /points finger toward Oregon
Clarett stepped into a depth chart that had Lydell Ross and Maurice Hall on it, i.e. no depth chart. Pittman left as a junior in part because he saw Beanie's writing on the wall. Those two were talent upgrades before they even happened. Herron could still legitimately end up All Conference in missing just one B1G game (I have him penciled in as the team MVP - 11W staff predictions feature SPOILER) so your expectations should be high. I guarantee you his are higher.
VERDICT: Smith/Hall, Berry/Hall, Hyde/Hall. Hall is too versatile to keep off the field, and the idea of Smith with Zach Boren as a lead blocker has the potential to make the quarterback controversy significantly less harrowing.
We can go ahead and say it now: Posey's junior year was lackluster. For awhile it seemed as though team MVP and chronic overachiever Dane Sanzenbacher was simply making him look bad, but it's safe to conclude 2010 was one of those classic press-clippings years where the talk of how good he had the potential of being caught up with and affected his play.
This is the part where the gravity of Ohio State's wide receiver depth gets a little too real: Posey was the only WR recruit of the 2008 class. Chris Fields is all that's left from the 2009 class that included Duron "XBox" Carter and James Jackson. Philly Brown and T.Y. Williams were freshmen last year, Verlon Reed is a converted quarterback and they're all joined by Devin Smith and Evan Spencer.
Beyond Posey, there are no seniors. There aren't even any juniors. Good thing they'll have an experienced QB leading them, right? (Note: This is why people drink)
The role of the receiver in - brace yourselves - a classic Jim Bollman offense (Note: This is how people become alcoholics) is downfield blocking. The role of the tight end - and Ohio State has at least two that range from very good to spectacular - is very similar.
Ohio State is going to be a cautious team all year, let alone through the first five games. The guys that see the field the most are going to be the ones that aren't necessarily game-breakers; they're going to be the receivers that have the best comprehensive grasp of fundamentals.
That's an important variable to keep in mind throughout the rest of the month, while you're hearing about how Smith and Reed are turning heads while Williams is impossible to cover. Freshmen wide receivers are generally lousy blockers, and giant, rangy pass-catchers like Williams generally come with - brace yourselves again - a catch, i.e. guess what they often struggle to do well.
History lessons: Robiskie and Brian Hartline, while earning NFL paychecks, didn't begin to approach the gaping hole left by Ginn, who forced defenses to adjust to him whether or not he was involved in the play (granted, having Boeckman instead of Troy Smith also impacted this).
Ohio State never grew accustomed to Drew Carter's presence, so Jenkins, Chris Vance and Chris Gamble did an admirable job of filling a modest void. Boston, Demetrious Stanley and to a lesser degree, Buster Tillman and eventual RB Michael Wiley were better than satisfactory, but exceeding or even remotely meeting the standard set by Glenn in 1995 was not a possibility.
VERDICT: Blocking and scant experience advantage will put Brown and Reed at FL and SE while Fields fills in the slot. I could see coaches using Williams as a fade threat or diversion. If the camp hype holds, Smith will have to see the field. Spencer seems destined for a redshirt.
Ah, right. Football is more than attention-loving specialists; it's a game built on the backs of anonymous fat guys who kick the crap out of each other while you're busy watching smaller guys collect all of the glory. Mike Adams will join his inked-up buddies on the shelf until the trip to Lincoln, and his loss - especially after he finally figured out how good he could be sometime during last year's Indiana game - could be marginalized by the emergence of Andrew Norwell.
Norwell has formidable experience and should aptly fill in for Adams; what's scary is that his LT backup in the two-deep likely becomes true freshman Chris Carter, whom we last saw unsuccessfully trying to finish conditioning drills. The left side of the line with 11W mancrush Jack Mewhort along with Rimington winner-in-waiting Mike Brewster makes that side of the line potentially frightening in a hit-them-hard-and-see-how-they-fall kind of way.
As has always been the case with line play under Bollman, depth is the issue. While Norwell is a nice backup for Adams, there's nothing behind him. Mewhort is backed up by two walk-ons. Brewster's backups are both true freshmen. The right side of the line looks like the receiving corps, with one senior (JB Shugarts) and no other seniors or juniors on the roster.
As for the fifth and recently-revealed sixth players in Tatgate purgatory, Solomon Thomas and Dorian Bell, neither player was a returning starter. Their absences - Bell's likely being permanent - simply create more opportunity for their teammates to make their moves and stake their claims.
That's what September 3 through the first of October will be about; survival. The talent void is eclipsed by the leadership void on the field, which means someone is going to have to scrape together some moxie very quickly to keep the offense lucid in the fog of fruitless playcalling, or ineffectual Bausermaning, or errant Braxtoning, or dropped passes, or after Shugarts' third false start of the game. /laughs because it's funny //cries because it will happen ///in more than one game
This team has taken an offseason beating that is difficult to compare to anything any college team has ever had to endure off the field. Making it to Full Strength Saturday™ on October 8 is going to require more character than ability, more patience than urgency and more steadiness than emotion. The Buckeyes are going to have to manufacture seniority in places where it does not exist.
If they expect to continue their streak of lesser-bowl avoidance, they're going to need to become fully self-aware prior to the Toledo game on September 10, because that is when reality is going to arrive in the form of a reasonably talented team full of scorned childhood Buckeye fans who will be smelling blood in the Horseshoe. And if there's something Ohio State absolutely cannot afford to lose - its beloved head coach, its Big Ten title streak, its consecutive BCS appearances aside - it's the valuable, situational punchlines for making fun of Michigan.