The prognosticators are alive and well in Columbus, Ohio. Will Jim Tressel let loose the reins on rising sophomore Terrell Pryor and the Buckeye offense in 2009 or will Pryor’s talent be “wasted” in the much-maligned plain-vanilla Ohio State offense?
With the Big Ten Football luncheon just two weeks away, the talk in Columbus, Ohio has turned to football. For those not familiar with Columbus media, two major radio stations tout their Buckeye coverage and with the Columbus Blue Jackets playoff debut ending as quickly as it began and with lukewarm allegiance largely split in the community between the Reds and the Indians (and neither are pushing imminent playoff hopes), the sports dead zone is quickly filled by Buckeye football talk. Kirk Herbstreit is a local media personality appearing sporadically on 1460 TheFan, now 97.1 TheFan in the evening, drive-home spot joined by permanent host Bruce Hooley and former Buckeye and NFL great Chris Spielman. With former Buckeye football greats among the radio hosts, like Herbstreit and Spielman, it is hard for the sports radio banter to do anything but rely on football and football metaphors.
The criticism of the Buckeye program has long been that the teams have been built around a strong defense and effective special teams. Tressel was once quoted in his first year as the head man as saying that the punt was the most important play in football!
Given Tressel is a former QB and a former QB coach at OSU during his first stint with the program, many thought that Tressel would bring more creativity to the offense. Rather, in the 2002 national championship season, the team was built on a stifling defense and a QB in Craig Krenzel who was cerebral and prone to making good decisions with the ball. In other words, Krenzel would not lose the game for the staff, but rarely was he called upon to win the game either. With the exception of what has come to be known as the Holy Buckeye play vs. Purdue in the 2002 season (for Brent Musberger’s memorable call of the play to Michael Jenkins on a 4th and short with time ebbing away on the game clock), Krenzel did nothing fancy in that 2002 season and the Buckeyes went undefeated. Tressel-ball, as it has come to be known, was vindicated.
Not so fast …
What about recent Heisman trophy winning Buckeye QB Troy Smith? He was an offensive juggernaut versus arch-enemy Michigan. And in Columbus, beating Michigan (the-team-up-north) is all that really matters. Tressel appeared to increasingly loosen the reins around Troy Smith as Smith progressed from his sophomore to senior season. The “rookie” Troy Smith was a run-first, scrambler at the QB position. Troy developed the ability to deliver the ball on target to receivers now dotting the NFL like Ted Ginn Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez. The expectation in the media in Columbus is that Tressel will similarly loosen the reins on Terrell Pryor allowing him to run loose as his passing develops and his receiving corps matures.
The real difference might just be in the tools at Pryor’s disposal in the offense.
Pryor does not have the receiving corps Troy was blessed with … yet. Gonzalez was a slot, possession receiver while Teddy was a burner. Ray Small has been long thought to be the next burner, but he has found himself in and out of the Tressel doghouse for his off-the-field issues. Small infractions apparently involving attendance mostly. Surprisingly, Small returns to the team this season, perhaps with a sense of urgency to reach his speedy potential.
Pryor did have the once-reliable horse in a running back Chris “Beanie” Wells. The 1,000+ RB (sophomore and junior years) had a bit of a durability problem last season but when healthy, the conservative Buckeye play book often put the ball in Wells’ hands rather than allow a fresh-freshman-faced QB to throw the ball or to scramble. Add to that the fact that Wells was once among the pre-season Heisman hopefuls until a sore foot-factor kept him from the bulk of the early season. It was clear that the early season offensive plans had called for large doses of Beanie, working Pryor into the scheme slowly.
Then came USC.
Pryor emerged the new starter at QB. While flashing moments of pure athletic magic, be it the abbreviated play book or other factors (the offensive line was often blamed) Pryor never quite emerged with the plays to match the hype. Nonetheless, the Buckeyes had a successful-to-most season (note: Columbus fans are generally content with any victory over Michigan though anything short of another national championship will leave most Buckeye fans crying the blues).
So, what will 2009 bring? A strong incoming Buckeye class should bolster a number of skill positions. The move to take Jake Stoneburner from receiver to Tight End was not unexpected and Stoneburner’s size (6’5″, 240) is a good addition to the position. Small returns to the receiving corps where Devier Posey, Lamar Thomas, and Devon Torrence are a year older and more experienced. Brandon Saine and Boom Herron return with time at running back. Herron in particular had a strong back-end of the 2008 season. The line remains a question. Those visiting spring practice noted the addition of the former Wolverine Justin Boren to the line and even noted his leadership makes him a possible 2009 captain. Boren sat out the 2008 season due to Big Ten transfer rules.
The defense returns a mix of starters and second team with some concern for DB with the loss of Donald Washington and former captain Malcolm Jenkins to the NFL. Chimdi Chekwa returns with the greatest DB experience and Kurt Coleman emerged last season as an almost hands-down pick for a defensive captain at the safety position. The D-line will be anchored by the experienced Worthington, Wilson, and Heyward with linebackers Homan, Moeller, Rolle, and Spitler all emerging in spring ball as contending for starting positions. In fact, a wealth of talent along the line and in the linebacker corps makes the secondary less of a concern.
The Buckeyes open with Navy in Columbus on September 5. Navy’s playbooks last year featured an option attack that will give the Buckeye defense plenty to keep them busy. The Navy defense allowed some scoring last season so Pryor might be allowed to get his feet wet with some freelance and some scrambling as the offense gels. The following Saturday night features the rematch with the USC Trojans in a prime time ABC game already scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Eastern. The cover will need to be off the playbook if the Buckeyes are to revenge their embarrassing 2008 loss.
Coach Jim Tressel has long touted his playbook as being written around what his QB does best. Terrell Pryor, often touted as the next Vince Young, might be just that if given the tools and the playbook … and then again, it could be 2008 all over again.