Jeff’s Weekly Sports Rapp: Pressure’s On Tress’ Last Class
By Jeff Rapp
(Editor’s Note: Jeff Rapp has covered Ohio State athletics since he graduated from the university more than 20 years ago. He currently serves as a voting member of the Heisman Trophy Trust and is a longstanding member of the Football Writers Association of America and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association).
I admit it. I don’t tend to stay up at night wondering what football prospects are contemplating, who is about to visit, if this tight end should be ranked ahead of that tight end or even if Ohio State is doling out the right scholarship offers to the right number of linemen.
I do realize all of that qualifies as news in these parts – often big news – so I try to keep up on the key names and strategies to a degree.
But when I decided to launch my website a couple years ago, I wanted to make sure not to flood it with football recruiting. That’s a niche that seems sketchy at best and those who demand information of that ilk are typically never satisfied. Plus, it’s too difficult to know with any assuredness which players are going to pan out and which aren’t.
I could site countless examples in the Jim Tressel era alone. A.J. Hawk was the least ballyhooed linebacker in his class; Mike D’Andrea was the one receiving the most hype. James Laurinaitis was just a name on paper before he got here. So was Troy Smith, who had only a handful of offers and was listed as an “athlete” when he signed. And why did Tressel bother to bring in some kid named Mike Nugent when already inherited a kicker at Ohio State?
An Inexact Science
The game gets more fun the further you go back. Remember when Jefferson Kelley was going to be the next Orlando Pace, or when Antoine Winfield was too short to play corner in the Big Ten? How about when Alonzo Spellman was going to revolutionize the game of football, or when Joe Paterno thought he would keep Eddie George in state and away from OSU by recruiting him as a linebacker?
But we need not look back any further for proof than the 2010 season, the one that turned out to be Tressel’s last on the sideline. Who was Ohio State’s MVP after an 11-1 regular season and sixth straight Big Ten championship? Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher, who was nowhere near the headlines when the 2007 recruiting class was announced (and who could have been named MVP of the Sugar Bowl as well).
Who was the most scrutinized player on the Buckeyes that season and the one prior? (Hint: check out the last word of the sentence.)
That would be quarterback Terrelle Pryor, partly because of the position he played but also because of the extremely lofty expectations placed upon him – remember, he was the Big Ten Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the summer of ’09 and ’10 and was supposed to be a Heisman candidate during his career – thanks to his astronomical recruiting ranking.
So why do we put this much stock into recruiting numbers? Because it’s a game, a fun diversion that heats up as soon as bowl season ends – and in the case of this winter, sooner. Plus, it draws traffic to magazines and websites.
But there’s a reason why every coach and recruiting expert uses the same phrase to describe it: an inexact science.
Amen to that..
Basketball is a little different
For those in the Midwest, the spring and summer is set up for reporters and analysts to travel not too far from home and attend camps and showcases where the best players can go against, well, the best players. You can pick up quite a bit from that environment, including how the prospects carry themselves, interact with others, and handle media interviews and coaching that is different than what they are accustomed to at the high school level.
As a young, unmarried man I would try to go to high school football games and gather whatever information I could on prospective Ohio State players, but the net keeps getting cast wider and wider and my free time is shrinking.
So I often know what others know about football recruits, which means I am guessing like everyone else as to how they will fit in to their college programs of choice. When I get to see the players for myself – seriously, what well-rated offensive lineman doesn’t look dominant wiping out lesserlights on videotape? – and gauge their work ethics and personalities, I feel much better qualified to offer an assessment.
So consider this as my personal disclaimer connected to the “excitement” of recruiting season and hyperventilation-inducing national signing day.
What is more fun and much more sensible with regard to this topic is to look back on the impact of particular recruiting classes. But instead of going back one year or five or 10, which is standard procedure, I’d like to go back two.
Well, it’s intriguing since the 2011 class was the last of an era; only we didn’t know it at the time. We believed – in fact, we were assured – that Tressel would survive, but after bringing in another top-10 haul and putting the Buckeyes through their paces in the spring, his 10½-year reign ended and Luke Fickell was installed as head coach.
But setting the time machine to February 2011 is more than just an entertaining oddity; it’s important to revisit now because of the lofty expectations that will fall on the 2013 Buckeyes. If Ohio State is to follow up the 12-0 season logged under Urban Meyer and return to superpower status, the juniors and a few redshirt sophomores are going to have to make a noteworthy contribution.
We know that Braxton Miller is poised to do so. It’s pretty much a given that you will make an impact as a junior when you were a top-five Heisman Trophy vote-getter as a sophomore. The quarterback duties are his; he has the keys to the speedboat.
Miller just set the school single-season record for total offense with 3,310 yards including a team-high 1,271 yard rushing – which made him just the third QB in Big Ten history to top the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
We can also assume that Miller will target many of his classmates next season when 2013 version of the OSU offense is unveiled. Meyer and offensive coordinator Tom Herman appear open to tweaking the system and presumably still have designs to get Jordan Hall into the mix.
But it’s highly noteworthy to this conversation that four of the top six receivers for the Buckeyes last season were 2011 signees. The exceptions were converted tight end Jake Stoneburner, who ranked third on the 2012 team with 16 catches, and Corey Brown, a member of the 2010 recruiting class.
Stoneburner is an outgoing senior from the 2008 class. That leaves the vast majority of the receiving duties again to Brown (who led the way with 60 receptions for 669 yards last year), Devin Smith (30-618) and Evan Spencer (12-136) as well as returning tight ends Nick Vannett (9-123) and Jeff Heuerman (8-94).
All five showed encouraging development in the offense and under new position coaches Zach Smith (wide receivers) and Tim Hinton (fullbacks/tight ends). Easily one of the fastest players on the team, Brown also was used on 11 rushing attempts for 96 yards, including one for a touchdown, and busted two of his 18 punt returns for scores, which helped him post a healthy average of 12.3 yards per return.
Just as Miller is the point man for the offense, fellow junior Ryan Shazier is as key as anyone to the defensive effort.
The Buckeyes will field an entirely new foursome of defensive starters up front now that Johnathan Hankins has announced his intention to leave school early for the NFL draft; lose a trio of senior linebackers in Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein; and also were hit at corner with the departure of longtime starter Travis Howard while Bradley Roby continues to contemplate his future.
Shazier is OSU’s top returning tackler and is sure to make a couple preseason watch lists for major awards after recording 115 stops in 2012. An even seventy of those tackles were solos and Shazier also came through with 17 tackles-for-loss, five sacks and an interception for a touchdown at Penn State.
So it’s safe to say the 2011 class, through all the turmoil and changeover, has been a vital presence to the roster and several of its members will be in leadership roles again next season. But is that enough? Has Ohio State developed a requisite number of impact players out of the two dozen who came aboard then or will the coaches need to tap into several more from the group?
The following is an official listing of Ohio State’s 2011 class on signing day:
Mike Bennett DL 6-3 280 Centerville, Ohio/Centerville
Brian Bobek OL 6-2 280 Inverness, Ill./William Fremd
Tommy Brown OL 6-5 320 Akron, Ohio/Akron Firestone
Jeremy Cash DB 6-2 190 Plantation, Fla./Plantation
Conner Crowell LB 6-1 220 Waldorf, Md./North Point
Chase Farris DL 6-6 265 Elyria, Ohio/Elyria
DerJuan Gambrell DB 6-2 180 Toledo, Ohio/Rogers
Curtis Grant LB 6-3 225 Richmond, Va./Hermitage
Doran Grant DB 5-11 180 Akron, Ohio/St. Vincent-St. Mary
Joel Hale DL 6-4 310 Greenwood, Ind./Center Grove
Kenny Hayes DL 6-5 240 Toledo, Ohio/Whitmer
Bryce Haynes LS 6-4 185 Cumming, Ga./Pinecrest Academy
Jeff Heuerman TE 6-5 240 Naples, Fla./Barron Collier
Cardale Jones QB 6-5 215 Cleveland, Ohio/Glenville
Braxton Miller QB 6-3 210 Huber Heights, Ohio/Wayne
Steve Miller DL 6-4 245 Canton, Ohio/Canton McKinley
Ejuan Price LB 6-0 235 Pittsburgh, Pa./Woodland Hills
Ryan Shazier LB 6-2 210 Pompano Beach, Fla./Plantation
Devin Smith WR 6-3 190 Massillon, Ohio/Massillon Washington
Evan Spencer WR 6-1 190 Vernon Hills, Ill./Vernon Hills
Ron Tanner DB 6-1 190 Columbus, Ohio/Eastmoor Academy
Tony Underwood OL 6-3 305 Shaker Heights, Ohio/Shaker Heights
Nick Vannett TE 6-6 235 Westerville, Ohio/Westerville Central
On signing day 2011, Tressel, as was customary, spoke briefly about the overall scope of the class and then passed off the majority of his press conference to his assistants so they could provide a thumbnail on each signee.
Over and over, we heard about Johnny Four-Star’s “great character” and love for the game and wonderful athleticism and how well he was going to fit into the system. It was interesting to hear this knowing from past history that several of the 23 simply wouldn’t make a dent here and also a day after it was learned Carter, a lineman out of Cleveland, was arrested for allegedly groping underage girls at John F. Kennedy High School.
Still, the enthusiasm surrounding the 2011 class was compelling.
Scout.com rated it the third-best group of signees in the country. The coaches gushed over what they had roped in, even though for the first time in my memory they did not land a tailback or fullback and that some players such as Jones, who headed off to a prep school instead of enrolling right away, clearly were long-term projects.
Fickell admitted he had plans to sign just two linebackers but ended up with four, all of them from out-of-state, because the talent level was too good to pass up. There were highly rated prospects all over the list and in many position groups. And seven of them including Miller and Shazier enrolled in time to compete in spring drills.
I remember asking longtime OSU assistant Jim Heacock at Photo Day in August if he sensed this was the best group of incoming freshmen he had ever seen and too my surprise he didn’t duck the question. He didn’t even flinch.
“I think so,” he said. “When you look at the versatility, the number of good players we have, the maturity, we think we have more kids than we’ve ever had who can help us right away.”
It could be debated from here as to what stunted the expected growth of the class – NCAA sanctions, massive staff changes, the implementation of new systems in all phases, or just the inevitability of recruiting fallout.
For example, Fickell sought the services of many of the frosh in the fall but also tried to play it somewhat safe in some regards in an attempt to hang onto his job. It turned out starting Joe Bauserman for any length of time and keeping Miller bottled up on the sideline wasn’t the right course of action, but throwing the youngster out there as the opening-day starter also didn’t come with guarantee of avoiding a 6-7 season.
Fickell hinted at his approach just prior to the start of the 2011 season, saying, “I think it’s realistic to see a lot of them contribute. Now, how much? I don’t know. We’ll see how they take their opportunities and run with them.
“After the third, fourth week of the season is when you get better. That’s when you see a lot of the upperclassmen really getting into their groove and their routine and their schedule. That’s tougher for a younger guy, a freshman. But they’ve shown a maturity level, they’ve shown that they can play. Now we’ve got to see if they’re consistent.
“We want to play them all. We want to play all our guys that are capable of helping the team. We tell them that from the get-go. That way they understand what our expectations are for them.”
Clearly, though, there wasn’t room for them all. There never is.
And so the list of 2011 signees includes the normal share of flameouts.
Price announced at the Big 33 Classic in mid-June that he had sought and received a release from his scholarship and claimed it had nothing to do with the fact that Tressel had just resigned under pressure at the end of May. He ended up at Pittsburgh.
So much for four linebackers.
Once considered the team’s center in waiting, Bobek transferred to Minnesota, Cash opted to go to Duke, and Hayes eventually followed suit and ended up at Toledo, but under weird circumstances. Meyer announced Hayes was leaving for medical reasons after the youngster sat out the 2011 season as a redshirt, but Michigan State flirted with taking him in before he ended up with his hometown Rockets.
Speaking of northwest Ohio, Gambrell, a 6-2 corner nicknamed “Peewee,” only brought embarrassment to Ohio State. In January 2012, Meyer announced Gambrell and another troubled defensive back, Dominic Clarke, had been dismissed from the program for violating team rules.
Gambrell was arrested very early in the year on charges of menacing and resisting arrest, according to a police report. The incident reportedly involved the mother of his child.
Carter eventually distanced himself from his trouble in high school but has battled a major weight problem in his career and switched from offensive line to defense in hopes of finding some time on the field. Similarly, Farris switched over to OL because of the need for depth there. Brown and Underwood are listed backups and have earned some plaudits from the coaches but still haven’t done anything of note on the field. Crowell has battled injury problems throughout his career and hasn’t been able to seize a role at LB despite the great need for depth there.
Haynes is progressing well but never was believed to be a game-changer. After all, he’s a long snapper by trade.
That leaves six defenders who could have a lot of say in how this class ultimately is judged: Bennett, Curtis Grant, Doran Grant, Hale, Steve Miller and Tanner.
Bennett, Hale and Steve Miller have inside tracks on key roles along the D-line, although a pack of 2012 freshmen including Noah Spence, Adolphus Washington and Tommy Schutt also have the look of starter or major contributor going forward.
Bennett, who had such a promising freshman campaign, was beset with a nasty groin injury this past season. Hale is a limited player who at best will absorb blockers much the way Garrett Goebel did.
Curtis Grant remains one of the great mysteries of this program in recent years. He appears to have the goods necessary to take over at MLB but admittedly wasn’t mentally prepared to play significantly as a freshman and was so lost in the shuffle this past season that Meyer urged Boren to switch over from fullback midway through his senior year.
Curtis Grant should get another shot to prove his worth but a poor offseason or another setback would seal his fate as an out-an-out bust.
Doran Grant seems to be on the right path and could line up opposite Roby in the fall. And Tanner can’t be discounted, either. He’s a bright kid and impressive athlete who could become a special teams demon or more.
But the clock is ticking, and a class that looked as loaded as just about any at Ohio State in the new millennium is nearing a crossroads.
If the Buckeyes are indeed about to chase down a national championship, they can’t do it with makeshift defense and Braxton Miller standing on his head. They need more upperclassmen to come to the fore. They need leadership. They need Braxton’s classmates to fill in a few more cracks.
Who will emerge? It’s anyone’s guess. But recruiting rankings of two and three years ago carry no meaning anymore.
For every Parade All-American who enters the doors of the Woody Hayes Athletic Center there is a lesser-ranked player, a Sanzenbacher, hell-bent on making his own mark and proving the experts wrong.
Maybe that is the real joy of recruiting, knowing that most of this is bluster but also fuel for the young, tough-minded student-athletes who really will be difference makers.
That is exciting, to this scribe anyway.
* This is the latest installment of Jeff Rapp’s Weekly Sports Rapp on The-Ozone.net. He is a regular voice on 610 WTVN in Columbus and long-time reporter covering the Buckeyes. If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out more of Jeff’s work on SportsRappUp.com.