THE DEVELOPMENTOF A YOUNG DEFENSE WILL BE KEY TO THE BUCKEYES' CHAMPIONSHIP HOPES
2005 RECORD 10-2(7-1 in Big Ten)
KEY RETURNEES WRAnthony Gonzalez (Jr.) Moves into the No. 2 receiver role after catching 28passes in '05 C Doug Datish (Sr.) Three-year starter shifts from tackle RBAntonio Pittman (Jr.) Division I-A's 11th-leading rusher last year, with 1,331yards
BIG MAN ON CAMPUSAgainst Michigan, quarterback Troy Smith is 2-0 as a starter, and he is comingoff a season in which he threw 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions.Now the senior will try to lead the Buckeyes to their second national title infive years.
Defensive tackleQuinn Pitcock was lifting weights next to several of his longtime teammateslast spring when he realized he was out of place. "I looked around,"the fifth-year senior recalls, "and it was basically me and everyone whowas going to the draft." Nine starters from the Buckeyes' fifth-rankeddefense, including first-round picks A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and DonteWhitner, signed with NFL teams. That Ohio State is still considered the team tobeat in the national championship race is a testament to its firepower onoffense. But those close to the program believe the Buckeyes have their shareof playmakers on defense, too. "They're going to be fast," Troy Smithsaid after facing the defense in the spring. "I'm 100 percent confidentthose guys will be ready for Game 1."
One of the newdefensive leaders is expected to be senior middle linebacker John Kerr, whoracked up 114 tackles as a freshman at Indiana in 2002 before transferring toOSU. He spent the past two seasons stuck behind Hawk, Carpenter and AnthonySchlegel, a third-round draft pick. More than half of the Buckeyes' projectedstarters on defense are sophomores, though most of them aren't strangers togame action. Strongside linebacker James Laurinaitis filled in for an injuredCarpenter in the last two games of the season; defensive end Lawrence Wilsonplayed in 10 games; and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins had nine tackles in theFiesta Bowl. "They've seen some spot duty," says coach Jim Tressel,"but they need a lot more experience before they can be a defense that runson all cylinders."
Where theBuckeyes will be clicking is up front with Pitcock and David Patterson, whodefensive coordinator Jim Heacock believes could be the best tackle tandem inthe country. "The great teams we face are going to make big plays,"says Pitcock. "That's when the seniors are going to have to turn to theyounger guys and say, 'Calm down.'"
Pitcock is amongthe 12 players remaining from the 2002 team that upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowlto win the national title, though all but one of them redshirted that year."We haven't won a national championship for ourselves," says Pitcock."It's a big motivating factor." If the Buckeyes reach the title game,it will mark their fourth trip to Arizona in the past five postseasons."But we haven't been to Glendale," says Tressel, referring to thePhoenix suburb where the title game will be held for the first time. "We'dlike to see Glendale."
BRAD SCHLOSS/ICON SMI