On April 1, the first day of spring practice, junior starting quarterback Steve Bellisari tried to fool the media by wearing the number 16 jersey of sophomore backup Craig Krenzel instead of his own number 8. Given how erratically Bellisari played last season, few were laughing.
He captained a ship that seemed to spring a new leak every week until finally going under in a three-turnover, 24-17 loss at Michigan in the season finale. The Buckeyes didn't play in a bowl for the first time since the 1988 season, coach John Cooper's first year at the helm. "Last year left a lot to be desired," says Bellisari, who wrested the starting job from Austin Moherman early in the season only to put up the lowest completion percentage (45.1) of any Buckeyes quarterback since Cornelius Greene in 1973. "We can't just go out on the field, say 'We're Ohio State!' and expect to win."
Cooper addressed last pear's subpar season almost immediately, axing offensive coordinator Mike Jacobs and defensive ends coach Shawn Simms last November, shuffling the assignments of his other assistants and hiring new coaches for the offensive line and the linebackers. New offensive coordinator Chuck Stobart, unlike Jacobs, will meet with Bellisari daily and mold the offense to his quarterback's strengths. "A good football team doesn't ask people to do what they can't do, and Steve is not Joe Germaine," says Cooper, referring to the pocket passer who threw 25 touchdowns in the Buckeyes' 11-1 season of two years ago.
Bellisari, fourth among Big Ten quarterbacks in rushing (332 yards on 116 carries) last season, will take deeper drops to take better advantage of his mobility. He will run an offense that has more option plays and naked bootlegs. When he does pass, he should have at least two sure-handed receivers to aim for in seniors Ken-Yon Rambo and Reggie Germany, who combined for 1,489 receiving yards a year ago. The defense has seven starters returning, but new coordinator Joe Tenuta must deal with the losses of second-team All-Big Ten cornerback Ahmed Plummer and linebacker Na'il Diggs to the NFL draft.
Ohio State is aided by a schedule that has Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan visiting Columbus, so don't expect Cooper to be sitting home in January for a second straight year. Also, don't expect Bellisari to be hiding in someone else's jersey on April Fools' Day next spring.