2008 Football Outlook - Part One - Offense
By John Porentas
Introduction, Offensive Line, Running Backs, Fullbacks, Quarterbacks, Tight Ends, Wide Receivers, Offensive Highlights and Lowlights
Most years this feature would focus on the areas of the Buckeye offense where there is the greatest loss of personnel due to exhausted eligibility. This year, that approach would result in an extremely brief column.
The Buckeye offense loses starters at two positions this year, right tackle where Kirk Barton must be replaced and fullback where Dionte Johnson must be replaced. That's it.
It's nearly the same story with the backups. The only losses among the backups in the two-deep are at left guard where Dan Dye is gone and again at fullback where both Trevor Robinson and Tyler "Tank" Waley will have to be replaced.
If you believe the notion that experience counts, the Buckeye offense should be very good next season. We are in that camp, but we also believe there are some positions where either the returners have to get better or someone has to step up and bring a little something new to the OSU offense. We also think that the OSU offense may have a little different look next year despite the fact that so many players are returning.
Offensive Line: Four of five starters return, as do four of five of the backups. The number and quality of returners on the offensive line is somewhere between impressive and downright scary.
Of the starters, center Jim Cordle, guard Ben Person, guard Steve Rehring and tackle Alex Boone all return. Among the backups in the two-deep, center Andrew Moses, guard Connor Smith, as well as tackles Bryant Browning and Josh Kerr will also all be back. Additionally, Kyle Mitchum and Jon Skinner, both of whom missed last season due to injury, are veterans who will also compete for spots in the two-deep next season.
If experience and time in the weight room mean anything at all, the Buckeyes should be better at four of the five offensive line positions next season, simply because there are four returners. It's doubtful that they will find a replacement for Barton that will be quite as steady as Kirk was last season, but whoever wins the job will be more than adequate.
OSU offensive line coach Jim Bollman has remained noncommittal on who the fifth starter might be next fall, but has said that there are a lot of possibilities. One of them is a move of Rehring out to right tackle and then find a replacement for Rehring at left guard, the spot he occupied in 2007. Rehring has played some tackle in his Buckeye career, but Bollman has expressed some reservation at the thought of separating Rehring from Boone after the two operated effectively side-by-side last season.
While Bollman has not been specific on who will be on the field, he has been specific on the trait he will be looking for. The job will go to the best pass blocker. That may sound surprising in that the Buckeyes will return Beanie Wells at running back, but we think there are really good reasons for that approach which we'll discuss in the last section of this column.
The Buckeyes signed three outstanding offensive linemen in their recruiting class, two of whom, Michael Brewster and J.B. Shugarts, are already in school and will participate in winter conditioning and spring football. Shugarts is probably a candidate at tackle, while Brewster can play anywhere along the offensive line, but will probably be looked at at guard or center. The other offensive line signee, Mike Adams, is considered one of the top offensive line prospects in the country and the top prospect in Ohio at any position last year. Like Shugarts, he is a tackle prospect.
The offensive line looks like it will be a strength in 2008 as it was in 2007.
Returning Starters: Jim Cordle (6-4, 290, rising redshirt junior), Steve Rehring (6-8, 330, rising senior), Alex Boone (6-8, 305, rising senior) and Ben Person (6-4, 315, rising 5th-year senior).
Returning Backups: Andrew Moses (6-3, 280, rising redshirt junior), Josh Kerr (6-5, 290, rising redshirt sophomore), Bryant Browning (6-4, 325, rising redshirt sophomore) and Connor Smith (6-5, 300, rising junior).
Other Scholarship Returners: Kyle Mitchum (6-5, 295, rising 5th-year senior), Jon Skinner (6-5, 300, rising 5th-year senior), Andy Miller (6-6, 270, rising redshirt sophomore), and Evan Blankenship (6-3, 300, rising redshirt freshman).
Walk Ons: Doug Ebner (6-4, 285, rising 5th-year senior), Chris Malone (6-2, 270, rising redshirt junior), Chris Reischlin (6-4, 270, rising 5th-year senior), Scott Sika (6-3, 280, rising redshirt freshman), Zach Slagle (6-6, 325, rising redshirt sophomore).
New Comers: J. B. Shugarts (6-8, 300), Mike Adams (6-8, 305), Mike Brewster (6-5, 295).
Running Backs: Like the offensive line, the running back position is an embarrassment of riches for the Buckeye headed into 2008.
The headliner is, over course, Beanie Wells, who now-retired Michigan Head Coach Lloyd Carr called the best running back he had seen in the Big Ten in his time as the coach of the Wolverines.
Wells played through an assortment of injuries last year and improved as the season progressed. He reportedly has had off-season surgery on his wrist and his ankle is expected to be much improved in 2008. There is every reason to expect a better Beanie Wells in 2008, and that is bad news for everybody on OSU's schedule, and very good news for the Buckeyes.
Wells will be the headliner, but the Buckeyes will have more quality backups in 2008 than they have had in recent years. Brandon Saine will return for his sophomore season after a year of getting his feet wet in Division I football, a year that also saw him cope with an injury that cost him some playing time. Also returning is steady and reliable Maurice Wells. Dan Herron, whom the OSU coaches are very high on, completed a redshirt season last year and will be available for carries in 2008.
Saine came to OSU with the reputation of having breakaway speed, a reputation he did not tarnish, but he was also impressive between the tackles. Put quite simply, he is not just fast. He is a tough, hard-nose running back who showed the ability to move the pile and break tackles as well as outrun people. Saine would probably be a starter at OSU in an average year, but Beanie Wells is anything but average. Saine made big plays in the passing game in the national championship game and that quality could be extremely important to the Buckeye offense in 2008. The Buckeyes offense would be well-served in 2008 if the OSU coaching staff found ways to have Saine on the field with Wells.
Maurice Wells improved as the season progressed last year. It seemed like as he got more and more carries his confidence rose and so did his effectiveness. Wells is a reliable runner and is extremely valuable in the passing game as a blocker and a receiver. Wells will contribute in 2008, but has two very good backs with whom to compete for playing time in Beanie and Saine.
Herron is a smaller back who was recognized as a scout team player of the week several times last season. He is listed at 5-10, but is probably something less than that. He does however pack 200 or more pounds on his frame. It will be interesting to see how Herron's running style and physical attributes translate to the Division I level of college football when we see him in that arena for the first time this spring.
Like the offensive line, the running back position will be a strength in 2008.
Returning Scholarship Running Backs: Chris Wells (6-1, 230, rising junior), Brandon Saine (6-1, 210, rising sophomore), Maurice Wells (5-10, 190, rising senior), and Dan Herron ( 5-10, 200, rising redshirt freshman).
Returning Walk On Running Backs: Marcus Williams (5-9, 195, rising junior), K. C. Christian (6-0, 205, rising redshirt sophomore), Bo DeLande (6-0, 210, rising sophomore), Joe Gantz (6-0, 205, rising redshirt junior).
Fullbacks: There isn't a whole lot returning at fullback. The lone returner on the roster listed at that position is Aram Olson who did not contribute in 2007 due to depth ahead of him as well as an injury situation. Olson was described as a true, throwback fullback when he signed with OSU, but has not had an opportunity to show that in his career thus far. Also listed as a fullback is walkon Spencer Smith.
The Buckeye signed a fullback in this years recruiting class, and the OSU coaching staff has had a history of moving players at other positions into the fullback position, much as they did with tight end/linebacker Stan White and offensive lineman Tyler Waley. This year may be a year when the coaching staff drafts a player at another position to help out at fullback.
Returning Scholarship Players: Aram Olson (6-2, 255, rising redshirt sophomore)
Returning Walk Ons: Spencer Smith (6-2, 230, rising redshirt freshman)
Newcomers: Jermil Martin (5-11, 220)
Quarterbacks: Todd Boeckman completed a solid first season as the OSU starter. We think Boeckman was good in 2007 and will be better, much better, in 2008.
Quarterbacks have improved from year to year at OSU in the Tressel era and we see no reason why that trend won't continue next year with Boeckman. When Boeckman had protection he was very effective in 2007, but at times had difficulty handling pressure. That is common in inexperienced quarterbacks, something Boeckman will not be in 2008. We think his interception numbers will decline for that reason.
Late in the season last year Boeckman showed the willingness and ability to run with the football. That trait should also help slow down the rush next season. According to Jim Bollman, Boeckman is not as quick, agile and elusive as his predecessor Troy Smith, but consistently ran better 40 times than Smith. He has a different kind of running ability, but it is an ability that if exploited could serve him and his team well in 2008.
Robbie Schoenhoft has moved on via a transfer after a season as OSU's backup that turned into a move to tight end for him late in the year. That move was apparently made possible by improvement in Antonio Henton who moved into the backup spot when Schoenhoft moved to tight end.
Henton lost some opportunity for playing time last season while dealing with the off-field situation that arose, but did get some time early in the season and practiced with the team while sorting out his off-field problems. He assumedly got better during that time, good enough to move into the backup role.
Henton has somehow become the forgotten man with OSU's fan base. He exhibited escapability in the spring game and in his appearances in the early season, escapability that was on par with former Buckeye Troy Smith (remember him?). His shortcoming was a tendency to throw into coverage and force the football to receivers and therefore throw interceptions, also much like a young Troy Smith.
As we said earlier, quarterbacks have gotten better at OSU in the Tressel era (see Troy Smith) and Henton's elevation to the backup role as the season progressed last year is an indicator that Henton was doing just that. Henton is quick and can make plays with his legs. He also has a big arm. If he has learned to use that arm intelligently, he could be an extremely effective player with real star potential.
Joe Bauserman will be in his second season with the Buckeyes after redshirting last season and working primarily with the scout team. Bauserman was out of football pursuing a baseball career since he originally committed to the Buckeyes in 2004. Last year he needed to get his "football legs" back and did so on the scout team.
OSU had not yet signed a quarterback in this recruiting class, but may yet if Terrell Pryor decides on the Buckeyes.
Returning Scholarship Players: Todd Boeckman (6-5, 235, rising 6th-year senior), Antonio Henton (6-2, 215, rising redshirt sophomore), Joe Bauserman (6-2, 220, rising redshirt freshman).
Returning Walkons: Ben Kacsandi (6-1, 210, rising redshirt senior)
Tight Ends: Tight ends Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard got most the snaps last season, and both return in 2008. Nicol had a decent, but not great season as a receiver but was a solid hard-nose, tough blocker. Ballard emerged as a bona fide pass catching threat and also had a good year as a blocker. Both are big, rugged players and will be valuable assets next fall.
Brandon Smith will also return next fall. Smith is stuck behind Nicol and Ballard on the depth chart and may actually be a prime candidate for a move to fullback should the Buckeyes decide to bolster that position by drafting a player from another position.
Returning Scholarship Players: Rory Nicol (6-5, 250, rising senior), Jake Ballard (6-7, 255, rising junior), Brandon Smith (6-3, 255, rising 5th-year senior).
Returning Walk Ons: J. D. Larson (6-4, 220, rising redshirt junior)
Newcomers: Nic Dilillo (6-5, 245)
The wide receiver position was a question mark going into 2007. The Brians (Hartline and Robiskie) came on to give OSU good play at wide receiver and both will be back in 2008. Hartline and Robiskie were able to dominate defenses early in the season, but as the season progressed and the competition got tougher, their production fell off some.
Both Hartline and Robiskie are back in 2008, and both are reliable performers. Neither, however, has yet shown the type of ability as a big-play receiver against top competition that require a defense to double them or account for them on every single play.
Ray Small is also back, and going into 2007 Small was supposed to be "that guy" who filled the big-play role. He did make some plays (remember Penn State?) but did not do it consistently. Small may yet fill that role, but will have to do it more consistently if he is to help stretch defenses and keep them from loading up the box against the OSU running game.
First-year player Dane Sanzenbacher got a lot of reps early in the season when Small was dealing with an injury. Sanzenbacher played well, but does not exhibit the big-play ability missing late in the year.
The Buckeyes got some play early in the season from two young players, Devon Torrence and Taurian Washington. Washington did in fact make some big plays and at time looked like a player that could assume the role of a big-play receiver in his career at OSU as he develops as a Division I player.
The Buckeyes return numbers of competent receivers, all receivers with whom you can win, but the receiving corps would serve the offense much more effectively if someone emerges as a big-play guy. Most likely candidates of the returners are Small and Washington.
The Buckeyes signed three wide receivers this year. Two of them, Devier Posey and Lamaar Thomas, have the potential to be big-play receivers. The third, Jake Stoneburner, also has the potential to be a special kind of problem for a defense. Stoneburner has good speed and is huge for a wide receiver. At 6-5, he creates mismatches in the secondary, the kind of mismatches that can demand double teams, and that often opens up other aspects of an offense.
Returning Scholarship Players: Brian Hartline (6-3, 190, rising redshirt junior), Brian Robiskie (6-3, 195, rising senior), Ray Small (6-0, 175, rising junior), Dane Sanzenbacher (5-11, 189, rising sophomore), Devon Torrence (6-1, 190, rising sophomore), Taurian Washington (6-2, 180, rising sophomore), Grant Schwartz (6-0, 200, rising redshirt freshman).
Returning Walk Ons: David Lisko (rising 5th-year senior), Dan Potokar (rising redshirt junior), Kyle Ruhl (rising redshirt senior), Garrett Hummell (rising redshirt freshman)
Newcomers: Devier Posey, Lamaar Thomas, Jake Stoneburner
Offensive Highlights and Lowlights
The tendency is to remember what we saw last and forget what we saw early. If you do that when thinking about the OSU offense last year your impression is of the Illinois game, the Michigan game and the LSU game. None of those games were what you would call offensive masterpieces for various reasons. What is a little troubling about that is that those games are the ones against better competition.
Offensive Line: Against Illinois and LSU, the Buckeyes did not protect Todd Boeckman well, and that is going to have to get better in 2008. That was not a problem in the Michigan game, but weather conditions dictated a conservative game plan that leaned on Beanie Wells.
We think the offensive line will be good enough to protect the passer against the lesser competition, but it has to get better at protecting against the better defenses they will face like that of Southern Cal, Illinois and Michigan. We also think this weakness in 2007 is the reason that Bollman will determine his new starter on the offensive front on the basis of pass blocking ability.
Running Game: In the backfield, the lack of fullbacks will make things interesting. The isolation play the Buckeyes used to spring Beanie Wells in the Michigan game will not be an option without an answer at fullback.
What the Buckeyes will be able to do is line up with more speed in the backfield, with some combination of Beanie Wells and any of the other three backs (Saine, M. Wells and Herron). The Buckeyes will most likely do some things next year in terms of backfield combinations that they did not do in 2008.
The one constant will be Beanie. He will have to get his carries, and will. How the blocking is schemed without a fullback will be interesting, but the Buckeyes have options. The running game will look a little different, but it will be effective because of the offensive line and Beanie.
Passing Game: Boeckman will be better in 2008, particularly in the area of poise and decision making. The OSU running game, including Boeckman's contribution, should also help the passing game. If you load up the box to stop the running game, the passing game gets easier.
The Buckeyes tried to use Boeckman to throw deep last season. That was a great strategy early in the year, but wasn't as effective late in the year. It's a strategy that requires great pass protection to allow receivers to get downfield. If the pass rush is effective however, the concept of throwing it deep gets pretty dicey, and that's exactly what happened vs. Illinois and LSU, and to some extent Michigan though the weather conditions factored into the offensive performance in that game as well.
As sometimes happens in football, the answer to a problem sometimes comes from an unexpected place. Pass blocking woes might be cured by the fact that OSU will probably not be fielding a fullback much of the time. Having two running backs on the field will open up possibilities of draw plays and screen plays which are effective at slowing down a pass rush. Saine has demonstrated his effectiveness as a receiver and the threat of handing it to him or Beanie on draw playsor throwing a screen to either one of them should slow down the pass rush, and that in turn should help the overall passing game.
If the passing game is to really be effective a receiver will have to emerge that will strike fear into the hearts of defensive backs and defensive coordinators, a receiver that can get separation and will command extra attention. Likely candidates for that role are Small, Washington, Torrence, Thomas and Posey. Someone in that group must step up to be the deep threat in the Buckeye offense if the OSU passing game is to be really effective.
Coming Monday - The Defensive Outlook
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