THE BUCKEYES CAN
be forgiven for feeling vulnerable. In fact, a little self-doubt might be a
good thing. Gone to the NFL are last year's Heisman Trophy winner (quarterback
Troy Smith), leading rusher ( Antonio Pittman) and leading receivers (Ted Ginn
Jr. and Anthony Gonzalez). Haunting the players' minds like a recurring
nightmare are memories of the blowout loss to Florida in the BCS championship
game last January. Complacency won't be an issue in Columbus. Redemption is all
anybody's thinking about. "We have to reprove everything we've ever
done," says senior right tackle Kirk Barton.
Nobody's as ready
to reprove themselves as Barton and junior left tackle Alex Boone, who were
last seen in the title game watching helplessly as defensive ends Derrick
Harvey and Jarvis Moss raced by them into the Ohio State backfield. The Gators'
duo combined to sack Smith four times and pressured him repeatedly. The result:
The Buckeyes quarterback completed just 4 of 14 passes in the 41-14 thrashing.
"We just didn't execute," says offensive coordinator and line coach Jim
Bollman. "There were breakdowns everywhere. You can't blame it on one
After the beatdown
in the Arizona desert, the 6' 6", 310-pound Barton--unlike Ginn, Gonzales
and Pittman--bypassed the draft because he wanted another year to improve his
status. He anchors a line that should be the strength of the Buckeyes' offense,
with three starters returning. The left side is massive, with a pair of 6'
8" bruisers in Boone and junior guard Steve Rehring, both of whom weigh
nearly 330 pounds. And though All-Big Ten center Doug Datish graduated, coaches
are high on 6' 4", 285-pound sophomore Jim Cordle.
Solid play up
front will be crucial to the development of Smith's successor. The current
No.�1 is 6' 5", 235-pound junior Todd Boeckman, a pocket quarterback
with limited mobility. The three-year backup knows the offense, but he has
attempted only 10 passes during his career and threw too many interceptions
during the spring. If he falters, coach Jim Tressel won't hesitate to turn to
6' 6", 240-pound sophomore Robbie Schoenhoft, who has attempted only one
pass but arguably has the strongest arm on the roster.
No matter who's
under center, Ohio State's attack won't be as explosive as the one that
averaged 34.6 points in 2006. The focus of the running game will be fast and
physical Chris (Beanie) Wells, a 6' 1", 230-pound sophomore who averaged
5.5 yards in spot duty last season; Tressel will now count on him for about 25
carries a game. Playing Lightning to Beanie's Thunder will be 5' 10",
190-pound junior Maurice Wells, a slasher with speed to burn. "Whoever's
back there, we're going to need them to run the ball a lot," says Barton.
"Especially late in the season against Wisconsin and Michigan. Those are
going to be wars."
Provided one of
the quarterback candidates emerges, then Barton, Boone and their linemates will
make those wars very winnable. "People are underestimating us," says
Boone, "but we feel pretty confident."