THE BUCKEYES CANbe forgiven for feeling vulnerable. In fact, a little self-doubt might be agood thing. Gone to the NFL are last year's Heisman Trophy winner (quarterbackTroy Smith), leading rusher (Antonio Pittman) and leading receivers (Ted GinnJr. and Anthony Gonzalez). Haunting the players' minds like a recurringnightmare are memories of the blowout loss to Florida in the BCS championshipgame last January. Complacency won't be an issue in Columbus. Redemption is allanybody's thinking about. "We have to reprove everything we've everdone," says senior right tackle Kirk Barton.
Nobody's as readyto reprove themselves as Barton and junior left tackle Alex Boone, who werelast seen in the title game watching helplessly as defensive ends DerrickHarvey and Jarvis Moss raced by them into the Ohio State backfield. The Gators'duo combined to sack Smith four times and pressured him repeatedly. The result:The Buckeyes quarterback completed just 4 of 14 passes in the 41-14 thrashing."We just didn't execute," says offensive coordinator and line coach JimBollman. "There were breakdowns everywhere. You can't blame it on oneguy."
After the beatdownin the Arizona desert, the 6' 6", 310-pound Barton--unlike Ginn, Gonzalesand Pittman--bypassed the draft because he wanted another year to improve hisstatus. He anchors a line that should be the strength of the Buckeyes' offense,with three starters returning. The left side is massive, with a pair of 6'8" bruisers in Boone and junior guard Steve Rehring, both of whom weighnearly 330 pounds. And though All-Big Ten center Doug Datish graduated, coachesare high on 6' 4", 285-pound sophomore Jim Cordle.
Solid play upfront will be crucial to the development of Smith's successor. The currentNo.¬†1 is 6' 5", 235-pound junior Todd Boeckman, a pocket quarterbackwith limited mobility. The three-year backup knows the offense, but he hasattempted only 10 passes during his career and threw too many interceptionsduring the spring. If he falters, coach Jim Tressel won't hesitate to turn to6' 6", 240-pound sophomore Robbie Schoenhoft, who has attempted only onepass but arguably has the strongest arm on the roster.
No matter who'sunder center, Ohio State's attack won't be as explosive as the one thataveraged 34.6 points in 2006. The focus of the running game will be fast andphysical Chris (Beanie) Wells, a 6' 1", 230-pound sophomore who averaged5.5 yards in spot duty last season; Tressel will now count on him for about 25carries a game. Playing Lightning to Beanie's Thunder will be 5' 10",190-pound junior Maurice Wells, a slasher with speed to burn. "Whoever'sback there, we're going to need them to run the ball a lot," says Barton."Especially late in the season against Wisconsin and Michigan. Those aregoing to be wars."
Provided one ofthe quarterback candidates emerges, then Barton, Boone and their linemates willmake those wars very winnable. "People are underestimating us," saysBoone, "but we feel pretty confident."
CONFERENCE: Big Ten
COACH: Jim Tressel
2006 Record: 12-1 (8-0¬†in¬†Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK: 2
RETURNING STARTERS: Offense 5, Defense 5
DE Vernon Gholston (Jr.)
Ready for breakout year after 8 1‚ÅÑ2-sack season
LB James Laurinaitis (Jr.)
Nagurski winner had team-high five interceptions
WR Brian Robiskie (Jr.)
Only starter back at wideout had 29 catches
Sept. 1 YOUNGSTOWN STATE
15 at Washington
29 at Minnesota
Oct. 6 at Purdue
13 KENT STATE
20 MICHIGAN STATE
27 at Penn State
Nov. 3 WISCONSIN
17 at Michigan
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Complacency won't be an issue. "We have to reproveeverything," says right tackle Barton.
The 6' 8" Boone opens huge holes for runners.