Jim Tressel has had his share of off the field issues at Ohio State; Alex Boone's DUI, Troy Smith's "Booster-gate," Marcel Frost's rumored drug use, there was the Maurice Clarrett saga, hell he even had two players (Guilford and Irizarry) arrested on felony robbery charges. Like all football coaches, Jim Tressel has a palace-sized doghouse for players that keep their noses clean or perhaps aren't working as hard as they should, but I cannot remember it ever getting this full.
Those of us that closely follow the Buckeyes closely generally know when a player is in the doghouse, but Senator Tressel is particularly evasive regarding pointed questions about player discipline. Who can blame him? These stories get much more press than the positive stories and tend to characterize a player's entire body of work regardless of whether or not it is indicative of the young man.
This spring we have seen unusual crowding in the doghouse, so much so that the ASPCA may begin investigating the conditions. Ray Small is in the doghouse. Eugene Clifford, Donald Washington, and Jemario O'Neal are in the doghouse. It has been a long time since this many players have run astray.
Several rumors have circulated around Buckeye circles regarding the infractions of each of this year's pound puppies, but true to form, Jim Tressel has said very little. When asked why Small lost his number Tressel gave some response about "losing your car keys," but the rumors that persist regarding Small's discipline seem to revolve around lackadaisical practice and an attitude of entitlement.
It is no secret among those that follow Buckeye football closely that Ray Small has been a disappointment. The kid reeks of Erik Haw and Justin Zwick, the kind of player about whom discussion always return to potential, projections, and inevitable comparisons to players past. Small entered the program labeled as the next Tedd Ginn. The basis for the comparison was obvious, both players were rather slight, exceptionally fast, and played for the same high school. The common ground between the two was so striking that Ginn's own father, and both player's high school football coach, called Small, "the best receiver he had ever coached."
The missing factors in the comparison were work ethic and the way that both players would respond to adversity; actually, Ginn saw very little adversity; he started making plays immediately and forced his way onto the field. Small on the other hand, well the game has not come to him as quickly. The potential has always been evident, but the results leave us with nothing but projections, comparisons, and prayers that this will be the year that Small turns it on.
According to Brian Hartline, Ray Small is doing the right things to reestablish himself as the Buckeyes homerun threat, "I give him credit. He knows he screwed up, but he's doing what he has to do to get back." Whether Small will earn his play time back is a question that has yet to be answered, but what is clear is that his issues have opened the door for Taurian Washington and Dane Sanzenbacher.
Small has put his head down, worked hard and the results are evident. Small, who has never been particularly durable, looks like he has put on about ten pounds in an effort to gain more after the catch and increase his ability to survive contact. The Buckeyes appear to be shifting the offense to more of a short passing game, in an effort to try to get the ball to playmakers in space. Small has proven to be elusive enough to make those plays, he just needs to show that he is tough enough to make the five yard catch in front of the MLB and stretch it into fifteen, next year's offense will hinge on it.
A strong spring game showed that Small is capable of emerging from the doghouse and further showed that he is capable of much need speed and quickness, leaving us talking (yet again) about his potential. The problem for Small now is that after the Spring Game we must begin talking about Taurian Washington's potential, which is a much newer and less exasperating topic.
The road to redemption may not be as clear for the Buckeyes defensive backfield. Rumors have been swirling since O'Neal, Washington, and Clifford were seen "getting some extra conditioning in" while the rest of the team was engaged in drills. The most persistent rumor seems to revolve around positive drug tests (marijuana), but there has been no confirmation to date from the athletic department or coaching staff (I would not expect one in the near future).
The only facts at this time are that Donald Washington has lost his first string position, Jemario O'Neal has fallen further down the depth chart, and Clifford, who still had not emerged from his last foray into the doghouse (again for a rumored positive urinalysis), is barely visible on the depth chart. As of this time none of the players have been suspended, but there is still a chance that they could be.
If the rumored drug use proves to be true, that may signal the end for Eugene Clifford as it could potentially be his third drug related incident since signing with Ohio State. Clifford, a five star recruit out of Cincinnati, was arrested for possession shortly after signing with Ohio State and was suspended for last year's National Championship Game for rumored drug use.
O'Neal, like Small, has all the talent and athleticism to be a difference maker on the field, but like Small, he has not been able to translate those gifts into anything of value on the field. O'Neal came into camp this year bigger and stronger than he had in years past, but size has never been the issue for O'Neal, the problem has always been about staying in position and football IQ.
If Tressel suspends the trio then the vacuum created by the loss of Washington would be the most apparent. Washington, the only projected starter in the group, was probably playing for a big contract in next year's draft, and now he will now be forced to answer questions regarding this incident, for in today's NFL a player's off the field judgment is nearly as important as his judgment on the field. Washington has now left the door open for Andre Amos. Remember, Last spring Amos and Washington had played to a dead heat for the second starting cornerback position. It was Amos' injury that ultimately gave Washington the nod.
Whether these players are suspended or not, this story will remain one of the underlying issues through practice this summer. Speed at the receiver position and depth in the secondary were two of the key reasons that Ohio State lost last year's National Championship Game. If the Buckeyes are going to survive their early season test at USC, they are going to have to address those same issues quickly this year. Whether this year's dogs emerge from the doghouse, as Smith and Boone did, or whether they are euthanized, like Clarett, Irizarry, and Frost, will be a key part of the answer.