Buckeyes trying to fill holes on offense, defense

Losing to Florida 41-14 in the BCS national championship game was hard on Ohio State. But losing 18 seniors and three juniors to graduation and the draft is even tougher.

Updated: April 2, 2007, 12:30 PM ET
By Bruce Hooley | Special to ESPN.com

The memory is seared into the minds of Ohio State fans, if not coaches and players, too.

But the 41-14 loss to Florida in the BCS national championship game may not be the most difficult loss for the Buckeyes to get over as the 2007 season approaches.

Jim Tressel
Jim Tressel and the Buckeyes must replace key performers on both sides of the ball.
As humbling as the 27-point beating on college football's biggest stage was -- and is -- OSU's psychological scars aren't as debilitating as the departure of 18 seniors who took the team to the brink of its second title in five years.

Now coach Jim Tressel faces a future devoid of not just Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, but most of his surrounding offensive skill position talent, as well as the team's two best offensive linemen and six defensive starters.

"We lost some very good players, players who won awards and set records and led our program to many successes," Tressel said. "But like most things, we have to turn the page. It's a new season, and we have to start again with players who need to show what they can do, show that they belong on the depth chart, show that they're ready to accept a leadership role."

Smith's exit creates the biggest hole, given his 65 percent completion rate, 2,542 passing yards and school-record 30 touchdowns.

Junior Todd Boeckman, who took his last meaningful snap as a high school senior in 2002, is the favorite over sophomore Rob Schoenhoft and freshman Antonio Henton to start at quarterback.

"It isn't important who the quarterback is, as much as we have a quarterback or two capable of doing what we need done," Tressel said.

Whoever ultimately gets the job -- and remember, Tressel first picked Scott McMullen over Craig Krenzel and Justin Zwick over Smith, before circumstances switched the order to OSU's benefit -- won't have much proven talent to ease his transition to starter.

Receivers Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez took their combined 110 catches, 1,515 yards and 17 TDs to the NFL a year early.

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So did Antonio Pittman, Ohio State's first tailback to rush for 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons since Eddie George.

Pittman's spot falls to sophomore Chris Wells, who, aside from fumble problems last season, looked ready to handle a heavier load than the 576 yards and seven touchdowns he managed in backup duty.

"We have expectations for Beanie to take that next step," Tressel said.

Whether OSU dials back its reliance on the pass depends on the development of junior receivers Brian Robiskie and Brian Hartline and sophomore Ray Small. The Buckeyes hope Small, who played with Ginn in high school, can cash his comparable speed into similar game-breaking ability.

Center Doug Datish and guard T.J. Downing -- both first-team All-Big Ten selections -- must be replaced on the offensive line.

The obvious leader up front is senior tackle Kirk Barton, who toyed with entering the NFL draft, but decided to return for his final season.

He's one of only five scholarship seniors on the roster, however, and the only one who started last season.

That's quite a departure from 2006, when 15 of OSU's 18 seniors were fifth-year players. Eight of the fifth-year seniors started, as did one fourth-year senior.

(33) James Laurinaitis
Matthew Emmons-US PRESSWIRE James Laurinaitis has proven himself on the field; now he'll be asked to lead his teammates off of it.
Combined with the three early-entry juniors -- Ginn, Gonzalez and Pittman -- the group amassed 666 games played and 336 collective starts.

"There's no question about it, there is a loss of tremendous leadership," Tressel said. "And one of the challenges of the 2007 team will be for leadership to emerge."

Junior middle linebacker James Laurinaitis looms as one cornerstone, not just on the field, but in the locker room. He has the cachet to lead coming off a sophomore season in which he led the team with 115 tackles, was a consensus All-American and won the Bronko Nagurski Award as college football's top defensive player.

"Those things are really nice and I'm really honored," Laurinaitis said. "But I'm not sure about them. Best defensive player in college football? I can't really believe that, because I look at film and there are so many things I think I could have done better."

OSU's other four returning starters on defense probably feel the same way after the momentum of an 11-0 start vanished upon allowing 39 points in a win over Michigan and 41 points against Florida.

"The day we were supposed to be good, Jan. 8, we weren't as good as we were supposed to be," Tressel said. "It was one of those games where you would have liked to have had a game the following week. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case."

Bruce Hooley covered the Big Ten for 19 years and now is host of a daily talk show on WBNS-AM 1460 in Columbus, Ohio.