[Editor’s Note: From now until Big Ten Media Days, we’ll be reaching into The-Ozone’s 23 years worth of archives and each day we will be posting a story from yesteryear. Big moments, small moments, big games, bigger games, and the random recruiting updates about guys you haven’t thought about in a decade or two.]
Summer 1998 | The 1998 Ohio State football team has been a topic of late on both the forum and the Buckeye Weekly podcast. More specifically, the ’98 loss to Michigan State has been brought up, but there’s no need to open that wound on a weekend. The Buckeyes were regarded as the best team in the nation well before the ’98 season started, and this position-by-position preview by John Porentas tells you why — TG
Anybody who has been coming to this page for a while knows my thoughts on opinions. I figure they are like armpits. Everybody has got a couple, and they usually stink. Despite my obvious distaste for expressing pure opinion, many people have asked for my take on this year’s OSU football team. For what it is worth, here it is. Like last year, I’ve gone position by position and given you my take on the state of Buckeye football.
Buckeye fans everywhere are excited about the return of Joe Germaine this year as a starter. Joe has proven himself as a clutch performer (Who could forget the Rose Bowl or the Penn State game last year) who can get the job done. The only rap on Joe is that he is not as mobile as a Stan Jackson was, but then again, who is? Joe is plenty quick (4.6 in the 40 according to his father) and is big enough to shrug off a few would-be tacklers. Joe has the poise to stand in the pocket and the skill to make the throw and will not beat you with mental mistakes. If the offensive line can protect him, Joe Germaine may yet toss his hat into the Heisman ring yet this year. Look for Joe Germaine to have a great season.
Behind Germaine is Mark Garcia. Mark was a heralded player coming out of the Junior College ranks but he has yet to show his stuff in a game situation. An injury his first year in the program put him back, and he has found himself in the backup role in this his last season. Mark has seen very limited action as a Buckeye. The lack of experience at the number two spot is a serious problem for OSU. Behind Garcia are redshirt freshman Austin Moherman and true freshman Steve Bellisari. Both are talented, but both are inexperienced. The key for OSU this season may be to protect Joe Germaine. If Joe gets hurt, the drop off at the QB position is steep.
Overall grade, B. Germaine an A caliber QB, but lack of experienced depth a real problem.
The running back situation at OSU this year is somewhere between great and unbelievable. From the top of the depth chart to the bottom, quality runners abound. Mike Wiley and Joe Montgomery have emerged as #1 and #1A. Wiley is Mr.Excitement that brings you out of your seat every time he touches the ball. Mike can hit the home run from any place on the field and is a fine receiver out of the backfield as well. The knock on Mike has been that he was too small to run between the tackles, but look for Mike to surprise some people with his strength this year. Mike is up to 190 now, up from the 170 of his freshman year and the 180 of last year. Joe Montgomery looks to be the Joe of old, running with power and authority. The knee looks to be solid, and Joe is quicker than he ever was, turning the 40 now in 4.4 speed. To say that Joe is tough is an understatement. Look for Joe to put a few would-be tacklers out of the game this season. Talented Derek Combs is the #3 tailback, but Combs has been slowed by an injured calf in the early going this season. Behind combs is big Jerry Westbrooks, who brings 4.4 speed along with his 225 pound frame. Freshman Jonathan Wells has had a great fall camp, and Jermon Jackson is back for his 5th year and is a capable runner. If the line can open holes, the OSU ground game will be awesome this season.
Overall grade A. This is a deep and talented group. You could win with any of the six of them as your starter.
Do everything fullback Matt Keller returns for his third season as the up man in the OSU backfield. Keller is a great blend of running skill, pass catching ability, and hard nosed toughness that a fullback must have. Keller played as an undersized fullback as a freshman, and slightly undersized last year, but looks to be bigger than ever this year, bringing close to 240 pounds to the field. Backing up Keller is sophomore Sean Penny. Penny is a converted tailback who is just getting used to the idea of being a fullback. Penny is probably a better runner than Keller, but is probably not as well rounded. Behind Penny is true freshman Jamar Martin who has lived up to expectations during fall camp as an outstanding blocker. Jamar will hit you and knock you down, and has also shown some nice hands out of the backfield. Jamar is probably not as quick as either Keller or Penny, but brings that bone crushing blocking ability to the position that the Buckeyes have lacked the past several years. Look for Martin to see PT this season in short yardage situations as well as down by the goal line. Rounding out the fullbacks is Charlie Sanders who is another converted tailback. Charlie has the strength to and speed to be a very fine fullback, but has yet to fully make the transition from being a tailback to a fullback.
Overall grade. B+. Keller is improved, Penny is improved, and Martin brings a dimension that has been missing.
Big John Lumpkin returns for his senior season and should be a force this year from his tight end position. John is above average as both a blocker and pass receiver and a real asset to the OSU offense. Behind Lumpkin is rapidly improving Steve Wisniewski. Steve came on very strong at the end of last season and should give the Bucks great depth at TE. Kevin Houser continues to push Wisniewski for PT, and look for freshman Darnell Sanders to see the field some this year. The big freshman is up to 265 from the 230 he came in at last year and is perhaps the surest handed of the tight ends. Both Wisniewski and Howser are coming back from injuries that made them doubtful early in the fall, but both seem to be full go now.
Overall grade. A- Depth and skill very strong at TE.
Like the running back position, this is a position that is positively loaded. David Boston is the headliner, and this will undoubtedly be the gifted junior’s last season in the college ranks. At 225 pounds, he is a very physical receiver, yet runs the 40 in 4.4. The NFL is certainly in David’s near future. Opposite Boston is Dee Miller who had a break-out season last year. Dee proved that he can get open and make the tough catch, and both Miller and Boston have the kind of speed that make them a threat to go all the way with any reception. Behind Miller and Boston are two gifted sophomores, Reggie Germany and Ken-Yon Rambo. Both played as true freshmen, and Germany in particular has had a great spring practice, spring game and fall camp. Rambo has also shown flashes of brilliance, but has been slowed some by injuries, the latest of which is an ankle sprain that will probably keep him out of the opener against West Virginia. Rambo’s bad luck is probably a break for Jimmy Redmond. Redmond was slated for heavy PT last year before a broken leg ended his season early. Redmond appears to be fully recovered and has been extremely impressive in fall camp. Jimmy is probably the fastest of all the OSU receivers and has great hand and technique to go with his blazing speed. Kevin Griffin is yet another very capable receiver that could start at a lot of places. Kevin will probably see time in the three-wide out formation this season, especially early in the year with the injury to Rambo. Darik Warnke has been slowed this fall by a hamstring pull, and Vaness Provitt has been lost for the season with a dislocated hip. Walk-on Tony Locke has also shown the ability to get open and catch the ball.
Overall Grade. A+. I am convinced this is the best group of WRs ever assembled at OSU. If there is a better group anywhere in the country, you will have to prove it by me.
These are the guys who make it all happen on offense, and this is the spot that most Buckeye fans are worried about. The O-Zone says, stop worrying. This is not going to be a weak spot this year, IF the injury bug can be avoided. Kurt Murphy, Ben Gilbert and Tyson Walter return for their second year as starters, and Rob Murphy returns for his third. Brooks Burris has nine career starts under his belt as well. Buckeye fans thought that the line play at OSU was sub-par last year, and in fact, it was. The line gave up too many sacks, was not physical enough in short yardage and goal line situations, and was not consistent enough. So how can the O-Zone be optimistic with the same guys coming back that were sub-par last year? Simple. They are all experienced. A football player, particularly an offensive lineman, makes his biggest improvement between his first and second year as a starter, and OSU invested in the likes of Gilbert, Walter, Murphy and Burris last season. That should pay dividends this year. Look for a far more cohesive and physical unit this season, one that will knock some people off the line of scrimmage and open holes for those running backs, and give Joe Germaine time to find some of those gifted receivers.
This should be a pretty decent line, with Rob Murphy and Tyson Walter both being candidates for post season honors. The real question mark on the offensive line is really in the area of depth. Tam Hopkins is very solid backing up at guard, and Mike Gurr has bulked up to 295 after moving to the O-Line from tight end. Hopkins may well win a starting position yet this season. Look for him to push Ben Gilbert for PT and the starting spot. Gurr is looking like an excellent prospect and is a capable backup . The real problem spot for depth is probably at center. The Bucks were counting on Drew Elford at that spot, but Elford injured his ankle early in fall camp and has not practiced since. One possible candidate is freshman LeCharles Bentley, whom the coaches really like because of his nasty attitude. At tackle, OSU will miss Jim Massey who will be out this season with an injury. Massey was slated to back up Walter at the left tackle spot. Henry Fleming will probably back up at right tackle, though Henry missed a lot of practice early this fall with a viral infection. Eric Smith is OSU’s biggest offensive lineman at 320 pounds and could turn out to be a valuable backup this season, and freshman Scott Kuhnhein could also be a factor if he is able to come back from the back injury he suffered this summer. Former DT Ben Pulfer has moved over to OT and has looked surprisingly good in drills.
Overall Grade B-. The starters probably merit a higher grade, but the lack of depth is worrisome. Still, that is probably a whole letter grade higher than this group finished last season, and if they can avoid injuries, they may end up the season with a higher rating.
Overall, this looks to be an improved OSU offense. Strengths are definitely at RB and WR. Depth is good at TE. Key to offensive success is to keep Joe Germaine healthy and keep the O-Line healthy until more of the backups can get back from injuries. The only weakness I see is the depth situation in those two areas. Look for OSU to use more three wide-out sets and to be a better rushing team this year.
Players who are on the hot seat: Jerry Westbrooks has got to emerge this year or he may never; Mike Gurr and Sean Penny must prove they are reliable backups; Mark Garcia has to show his stuff in game conditions, the entire O-Line has to prove that last season was a learning experience; Mike Wiley has to hold on to the ball or Joe Montgomery will take his spot and Jerry Westbrooks might get his chance.
Players who may surprise you: Jimmy Redmond is under rated and will make some plays; Tyson Walter will be very tough at left tackle; Sean Penny and Jamar Martin will do some good things at fullback; the entire offensive line will be better than you think. The special teams should be better this year than last, all of them.
Overall grade for the offense, B+, if Joe doesn’t get hurt and the O-Line can stay healthy.
Fred Pagac has the silver bullets ready and eager to take the field, and this year’s defense should be another very good one.
This was going to be a position where there is great depth, but now I don’t know. The injury to Joe Brown troubles me, and the recent news that Paris Long might not be eligible is a major blow. I know that Brown is scheduled to play, but it is yet to be seen how effective he can be playing with a broken thumb. It looked pretty nasty to me last week, and he has had a pin and screw put into it. That leaves Clinton Wayne, Mike Collins, Randy Homa, and Heath Queen as D-linemen. Freshmen Ryan Pickett and David Thompson could both see action a lot earlier than expected if neither Brown nor Long are available. Pickett in particular could be a major help if he lives up to his billing, and Coop has been saying that he has. If Brown can live up to expectations despite the injury, this could be a very effective group. If not, they may have some problems. Collins could be a real sleeper, but he is still young and untested. Wayne is probably the best pure athlete of the group, and has tremendous lower body strength. He also has the attitude you would want in a D-lineman, as do Brown and Collins. Homa is a guy looking for a position, and now seems to have the body it takes to play DL. He is one of the strongest Buckeyes on the team with a 450 BP. The D-Line will remain somewhat of an enigma until we see how the young guys play. There are a lot of untested players that folks are counting on in the interior D-Line
Overall Grade: B+ with both Brown and Long; B without Long, B- without Brown, and C without both of them. Even without both of them, this is a better group than last year’s.
The Buckeyes go from mediocre to way above average at this position in one short off season. Rodney Bailey came on at the end of last season to be a playmaker at DE. Rodney is back and is more experienced, more confident, bigger, stronger, and faster. Rodney is going to tear the head off at least one QB this year. At the other end, not one, but two player have emerged as play makers. Brent Johnson has finally overcome a succession of injuries and shown he can play, and newcomer James Cotton has everyone excited about his capabilities. Cotton brings legitimate 4.4 speed to the DE position while packing a very tightly wound 255 pounds on his frame. If Rodney tears of somebody’s head, James will probably be there to recover the fumble. Look for Johnson and Cotton to duel it out for the starting position opposite Bailey, though both should see plenty of playing time. The OSU pass rush from the DE position should be very strong this year. Last year’s starter Matt Lavrar returns and figures to be a motivated player if he loses his starting position, and does big Tony Eisenhard who also has something to prove as a DE. Like the offensive linemen, those guys are back as second year players, and they should be improved over last season. Marcus Perez may be the second fastest DE on the team (after Cotton) and can be a very effective pass rusher. Newcomers Kenny Peterson and Julius Yeast have both been very, very impressive.
Overall Grade: B+, Look for DE coach Shawn Simms to take the platoon concept to heart and use as many as 5 DEs. Grade could be higher by season’s end if everyone continues to develop.
Unless you are living on a mountain top in Tibet, you know the story here. If Andy Katzenmoyer gets his grades, this will be the strongest position on the team. He is truly a phenomenal player. My hunch is that he will, but we will all know soon. Backing up Andy is his old high school team mate Chris Kirk and redshirt freshman Jason Ott. Kirk is more experienced, but Ott is really a hard nosed son-of-a-gun who loves to hit folks. He is not as fast as Katzenmoyer (who is?), not quite as big, but is very physical and very bright. Kirk has improved every year as an ILB. It would be hard to tell who would fill in if Andy can’t go. It could even be someone like Jerry Rudzinski who could be moved over from OLB.
Overall grade A+ if Andy is there, B if he isn’t.
The expected starting duo of Jerry Rudzinski and Na’il Diggs will be very strong, and look out for Courtand Bullard to make his presence felt this year as well. Rudzinski is under rated and will have a standout senior season. He is a coach on the field and has a great temperament for a defensive player. Diggs is now packing close to 240 pounds on his frame while still running a sub 4.5 40. Look for OSU to use Diggs as a rush linebacker in passing situations. Na’il was used as a rusher last season and recorded a number of sacks. His speed, size and strength are awesome. Bullard is now up to 220 pounds and is also a legit 4.4 40 guy. Jason Ott is currently listed as an OLB and would probably figure to see action at that position this year as long as Andy Katzenmoyer makes grades. If not, Jason could move back inside, or even Rudzinski inside with either Bullard or Ott taking the OLB position. Both Tim Cheatwood and Joe Cooper have been converted to LBs from safety. Cheatwood is a 4.55 guy who needs to add a bit to his 6-4, 215 pound frame to be effective against the run, but would probably be a terrific guy to have in there in passing situations. Cooper is a 4.5 guy who is 6-2, 213. He is kind of a tweener who the coaches were grooming as an enforcer at the safety position.
Overall grade A-. Could be a full A, depending on how the situation works out at ILB.
Ahmed Plummer and Antoine Winfield both return for their second seasons as starters, and this duo certainly rivals the duo of Shawn Springs and Ty Howard of a couple of years back. Winfield not only covered well last year, but led the team in tackles. According to DB coach John Tenuta, Plummer may be the best cover guy on the team. Plummer is probably the most under rated player the Bucks put on the field. The presence of these two guys will allow the OSU staff to go man to man and turn loose linebackers and safeties to rush the passer. These guys are key to OSU’s defensive success this season. Backing them up are true sophomore David Mitchell and true freshman Nate Clements. Mitchell is the biggest of the OSU corners and is a very physical player as well as a fine cover man. Clements has come into camp and impressed everyone with his cover skills. He has probably become the number three cover guy, beating out sophomore Roland Steele. Clements has great speed and the knack of staying with a receiver. Steele is also very speedy, and is considered a big hitter despite his size of 5-11, 170. Also figuring into the mix at CB is newcomer Derek Ross, who has also been impressive in fall camp.
Overall Grade, A. The addition of Clements as a third man-to-man cover guy makes this an awesome group.
Gary Berry and Damon Moore are both back from last year’s defensive backfield……we hope. Damon has a grade question, and the Bucks would certainly miss him if he is not eligible. Fortunately, the cupboard is not not bare, and Percy King appears to be ready to step in if Damon cannot play this year. The safeties are going to be just fine at OSU this year, with or without Damon. Berry got off to a slow start last season, but really came on strong as the season wore on. My guess is that Berry will have an All Big Ten kind of season this year. Moore also could have that kind of year if he is eligible. Also figuring into the mix at safety are Central McClellion who saw plenty of PT last season, and redshirt freshman Greg Simpson, who is a very physical player and is extremely strong against the run. Both new comers, Donnie Nickey and Cie Grant, have been impressive as well, and will be contributors as soon as they really know the defense. With or without Damon, this is a very strong and talented group.
Overall Grade. A.
Players on the Hot Seat: Randy Homa has to do it this year or never; same it true for Matt Lavrar and Tony Eisenhard; Clinton Wayne must prove he has found a position; Chris Kirk and Jason Ott have to come through if Andy isn’t eligible.
Players that will surprise you: Jerry Rudzinski will play like the senior that he is; if Joe Brown can play up to expectations despite his injury, he could be a dominator; Brent Johnson will be very strong at DE; Percy King will get quality PT and make plays.
Overall grade for the defense: With Katzenmoyer A, without, A-. Joe Brown’s effectiveness also could affect the ratings.
There should be improvement in every phase of special teams play this year.
Brent Bartholomew is back to do the punting after leading the Big Ten last season in punting and ranking 10th in the nation. Dan Stultz returns a seasoned veteran after handling the place kicking chores last season. Dan will be more consistent this season. He is bigger, stronger, more relaxed, and fully recovered from a back problem that bothered him some last year. Look for kickoffs into the end zone this year and more consistency on FG attempts.
The coverage teams should also be improved this year. Standout Kevin Griffin returns to lead the kick-off coverage team and the punt blocking teams. Lots of guys were first year players on those squads last year, and are back with a year under their belt and should be better for it. Look for David Boston to be a more effective punt returner this year after a bit of a disappointing season in that role last year. The kickoff return duties could fall to a number of swift Buckeyes, including Mike Wiley, Derek Combs, Ken-Yon Rambo, Nate Clements and Gary Berry.
Overall grade for special teams; A
Overall team rating going into the season:
A with Katzenmoyer and Brown, A- without.
The Buckeyes seem to be totally deserving of their number one ranking……on paper, but football is not played on paper, it is played on grass. How well the Bucks do this season will depend on whether they play up to their potential, whether they are hit by injuries, and whether they can catch a break or two along the way. Tough games at Morgantown and against Penn State and Michigan are all potential losses if the Bucks don’t have their chin straps buckled up. If they play to their potential and get a few breaks, they could win them all, but it is far from a sure thing. I can’t wait to see how this season unfolds.