By Anthony Zilis
Ohio State has won 33 games in the last three years, winning the conference championship each year. At any other Big Ten school this couldn’t possibly be considered a dry spell.
But after losing BCS bowls each season, many consider this period for the Buckeyes just that.
Still, Jim Tressel’s group is looking to extend a run of four straight Big Ten titles and make it back to the BCS Championship game for the third time in four years. A bout with USC in Columbus the second week of the season should give a major indication of how the Buckeyes’ season should go.
If they win, they’re as much of a national championship contender as anyone. If they lose, an undefeated finish to the season would be crucial for any hopes.
Tressel’s bunch seems well-equipped to accomplish the feat, even with an important group of players graduating.
Here’s a unit-by-unit preview of how they should line up.
The Buckeyes replace one of the top running backs in the nation in current Cardinal Chris “Beanie” Wells. Wells accumulated 30 touchdowns throughout his three-year college career and was a staple in the Buckeye backfield.
“It’s difficult to replace a Beanie Wells,” head coach Jim Tressel said. “Beanie was an outstanding player, and he was the kind of guy that as the season went on or as the game went on, he got stronger and stronger.”
They’ll look to sophomore Dan “Boom” Herron to take that spot. Herron was used primarily as a speed back last year, but will have to develop a more complete game in order to fulfill the all-important starting role.
Brandon “Zoom” Saine, another speedy back, should get some time, but probably isn’t equipped to be the starter.
Tressel thinks the combination of “Boom” and “Zoom” should be able to make up for the loss of Wells.
“Danny Herron is a tough kid, a good ball carrier, excellent pass protector, is solid in the passing game,” Tressel said. “Brandon had a very good spring, as did Danny.”
Terrelle Pryor was one of the most hyped freshmen in the country last year.
This year, he’s one of the most hyped sophomores.
After having a solid ’08 campaign, Pryor was named Big Ten preseason player of the year.
“I think the experiences Terrelle got this past fall were very, very valuable,” Tressel said. “He has a real passion to do well. He wants to make sure he can do all that the team needs, and I thought for a freshman he was pretty careful with the football and grew to learn from every experience he had.”
Pryor’s aerial game was conservative last season, but his touchdown to interception ratio was fantastic at 12 to four. Expect the passing game to be unleashed this year.
The impressive part of him game, though, came on the ground. Pryor rushed for 631 yards and five touchdowns, showing he was the athlete who some thought would fit nicely in Michigan’s spread offense.
But the part of Pryor’s makeup that Tressel wants his quarterback to improve is his leadership.
“He’s so young he hasn’t had a chance to … demonstrate that he’ll be there for them over time,” Tressel said. “Even when it’s going rough, he’s there for them. When it’s going good, he’s there for them.”
The Buckeyes have three starters returning on a veteran line, and look to protect their preseason offensive player of the year quarterback. Center Michael Brewster leads the group. Jim Cordle started at both center and left guard last year, and will move to right tackle this season.
The interesting story, though, has been tackle Justin Boren, who transferred from arch rival Michigan. Boren has the chance to be one of the best run blockers in the Big Ten.
If he lives up to his potential, this offensive line could dominate their counterparts.
The Buckeyes have very little production returning at receiver with Brian Robiskie’s graduation.
Devier Posey, a former five-star recruit, could have a breakout year and junior Dane Sanzenbacher should also get a good amount of receptions.
But Tressel thinks that a high percentage of receptions could come from tight end Jake Ballard.
“Over the years we’ve had very good wideouts,” Tressel said. “Sometimes they get a little more attention, and if you’re a tight end and you can beat the matchup, usually one person, and that quarterbacks confident you can go up and catch the ball, you might have a chance to.”
The secondary lost its star, Malcolm Jenkins to the NFL, but should bounce back.
“It’s tough to replace a Malcolm,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “He did so many things for this team. He made it a lot easier. He could basically just shut down that side of the receiving field. But we have so many people to just, kind of fill the void. “
Senior Andre Amos, who has battled injury throughout his career, should be one of the players to fill the void left by Jenkins, and three returning starters should also soften the blow. Coleman returns along with fellow senior Anderson Russell and junior Chimdi Chekwa.
“Andre Amos has been here for five years,” Coleman said. “He knows the system, he’s 100 percent healthy and he’s able to play with the rest of us.”
Probably the most intriguing unit on the team, the linebacking corps was one of the best in the nation in ’08.
But this year they lose all three starters, including current pros James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman.
But Ross Homan and Austin Spitler are expected to step in seamlessly, while Tyler Moeller, Jr. Brian Rolle, Soph. Etienne Sabino, and true freshman Dorian Belle, one of the top linebacking recruits, are all expected to contend for the starting spot.
“Any of those guys can come in and play,” Coleman said. “We’re fast this year, they can move.”
The defensive line is a unique group that should be a major strength of this team.
Junior defensive ends Thaddeus Gibson and Cameron Heyward are the two most notable returners to this unit, but the tackles Dexter Larimore and Dough Worthington are also talented.
Worthington said the special thing about this line is its versatility, saying that each lineman can play each line position.
“With today’s offenses, you’ve got to give them a lot of different looks, make sure they’re not seeing the same thing every play,” Worthington said.