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Jim Tressel and his OSU coaching staff are reportedly revamping the Buckeye offense this off-season, planning to implement a greater variety of sets and looks for 2009, all of it designed to maximize the talents of second-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor. And in this week's Buckeye Leaves, Dan Wismar talks about the (alleged) transformation, as well as some other changes brewing in Columbus as the Buckeyes come off the heels of their third straight bowl game loss.
A New Offense For Buckeyes?
Stop me if you've heard this one. The Buckeyes are going to have a more diversified and less predictable offense this coming season. Yeah...me too.
Jim Tressel and his OSU coaching staff are reportedly
revamping the Buckeye offense
this off-season, planning to implement a greater variety of sets and looks for 2009, all of it designed to maximize the talents of second-year quarterback Terrelle Pryor (and compensate for the loss of Beanie Wells).
Tressel and his assistants have
met with coaching staffs
at several other programs, and indications from players and coaches as spring football gets started is that the 2009 Bucks will be showing more shotgun and hybrid formations, and less of the standard 'I' set. We can also expect more authority for on-field decision-making by Pryor at QB, as he has a chance to go through spring football for the first time, and take reps as the undisputed starter.
All of this makes perfect sense, and comports with Tressel's track record of adapting his offense to his personnel instead of insisting that...say, Pryor and Todd Boeckman are interchangeable athletes in a fixed system.
Please forgive me though, if don't install the seat belt on my favorite recliner for the 2009 season just yet. Because unless I missed the memo about Tressel's off-season personality transplant, the guy strategizing on the OSU sideline will be the same guy we've seen there for eight seasons. And he'll still be calling all the plays. And remember....we've heard this one.
Most of my fellow Buckeye fans are as delighted as I am that Jim Tressel is the head coach for the program we love. But sometimes we can tend to minimize the national championship, the five Big Ten titles in eight years, the three championship game appearances, the total domination of our arch-rival, the impressive academic achievement, and the admirable sportsmanship and class that he exudes every day....and just zero in on the negative stuff.
(There I go again, trying to dress up my own opinion as somehow being representative of "Buckeye fans" or "most people" or whatever. I even annoy myself when I do that, and resolve to do less of it. So the following is my own personal take, and not meant to imply a viewpoint any more widely-held than that.)
In a nutshell, the rap on Tressel amounts to his having presided (as
coordinator) over an offense that is often painfully conservative or maddeningly predictable or both, and, due either to failures of scheme or failures of execution, has proven ineffective in games against the elite college programs, (notably Florida, LSU and USC...as if I need to remind anyone...) while still remaining able to out-talent lesser opponents.
It has been an offense that keeps some of those lesser opponents in games they have no business being in, and fools no one on the better teams. The passing attack seems simplistic to me, even as I readily acknowledge that Jim Tressel has forgotten more offensive football than I'll ever know. Traditionally a power running attack, this offense makes a full-time blocker out of the tight end and an offensive guard out of the fullback. And in the last couple years, defensive coordinators at LSU and USC and Penn State haven't lost much sleep figuring out how to deal with the only three guys going downfield in the passing game.
This offense values the repetitive over the imaginative or unexpected. This offense often operates like the punter is its most important player. It's a "Just Win Ugly, Baby" attack. This offense shows up for games wearing a sweater-vest.
Now, for an old hand like me, the off-season hand-wringing and second guessing of the OSU offensive scheme has been a tradition since the Nixon administration. As reliably as spring follows winter, each year brings with it the hope, if not the credulous belief, that
will be the year the Buckeye offense matches its staggering potential. That annual injection of hope doesn't come out of nowhere either. It is often fed by statements from coaches, tantalizing fans and media with talk of the possibilities presented by the talent always on-hand at OSU. Lately, it has functioned to fertilize my cynical side.
Actually, if I'm honest, I have to admit that my chronic dissatisfaction is exaggerated a bit. The Buckeyes have put some extremely diverse and exciting offenses on the field over the years, and have produced NFL-caliber talent at every position on the offensive unit, including Heisman winners at both running back and quarterback in just the last 14 years. But reputations are not garnered for no reason at all, and "three yards and a cloud of dust" is not a phrase associated with Southern Cal.
If the perception of a cautious, conservative, OSU offensive philosophy was warranted in the Age of Woody, then clearly it was undeserved during Earle Bruce's time in Columbus. Bruce's Buckeye teams were generally long on points and yardage, and usually more deficient on the defensive side of the ball. John Cooper recruited great receivers and running backs to Columbus, and then largely underachieved with them, justly earning his reputation as a hapless game-day coach. Say what you will about his other shortcomings though, Cooper can't be accused of being an offensive stick-in-the-mud.
But if Bruce and Cooper succeeded in shedding the conservative offensive mindset of the Woody years, then Jim Tressel has just as surely restored it to the Buckeye program since 2001. And if Tressel's overall record at OSU (83-18) is to be the ultimate report card for his program, this return to Woodyball should be celebrated, and to a great extent it is.
The fact is though, that in four high-profile games over the last three seasons (BCS title game losses to Florida and LSU, and last years losses to USC and Penn State) when the OSU offense was pitted against the best teams in the country, the unit's overall performance fell short of what the competition was doing. The extent to which those shortcomings fell in the areas of talent or coaching or execution can be left to other columns on other days. But Ohio State didn't score a touchdown in either the USC or PSU games in 2008. That speaks for itself.
Knowing what we do about Jim Tressel as micro-manager, perfectionist and competitor, it's easy for us to imagine him feeling stung, not just by the post-season losses, but specifically by the ineffectiveness of the offense...his baby...in most of those key losses. Postgame comments by opposing players (Florida and USC come to mind) that they knew exactly what the Buckeye offense was going to do had to cut right to Tressel's gut.
So there are going to be some changes made. And this time...you know what?....I believe it.
A Head Start on 2009
The transformation to the 2009 offense started nine games earlier than what the original plan had called for. I wasn't the only person to have the 2008 Buckeyes considerably overrated before the season. All the national experts had OSU in the top three teams in the country. At least I had the excuse of being a shameless Buckeye homer.
All Big Ten quarterback Todd Boeckman was returning to lead the offense, along with the nation's best running back. The line was huge, the receivers experienced. Gradually introducing the versatile skills of freshman Terrelle Pryor would be icing on the powerful Buckeyes' offensive cake. Very quickly though, Tressel found that someone left the cake out in the rain.
Beanie went down after one half of one game. In the second game, against Ohio U., the offensive put on one of the most inept displays of OSU football I can ever remember, and the team had to pull out a near-miracle to edge a lousy Bobcat team. Boeckman's confidence, rattled by the O.U. debacle, was then screwed, blued and tattooed the following week by USC, and Tressel was forced into "the future is now" mode.
And viewed from the perspective of where the team was after the shellacking in L.A., the reboot of the Buckeye offense by Jim Tressel three games into the season, from a power-running, pro-style, I-formation attack led by a senior QB, to a read-option offense with a true freshman at the controls, has to be considered successful by almost any measure.
Pryor became the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He led the league in passing efficiency, and more importantly, he led the Buckeyes to a share of the conference championship and a BCS bowl game. He ended the season 8-2 in his 10 starts, the two losses by a total of 10 points. All this despite an offensive line that underachieved, a down year for the senior wideouts, a fragile star tailback, and a limited playbook that reflected both the inexperience of the quarterback and the conservatism of the play-caller.
For Tressel's part, he had to deal with a senior-laden team, not all of whom were totally on board with replacing their fellow-senior at quarterback with the upstart freshman. With the season in the rearview mirror, stories of dissension in the locker room at the time of the switch have found their way out.
But now that the disappointments of 2008 are behind them, the Buckeyes can start to reap the benefits of the ten games worth of experience Terrelle Pryor got under center last fall. And I think there's a sense in Columbus that Jim Tressel knows exactly what the potential is for Ohio State football over the next two seasons, and he doesn't intend to waste the opportunity. At the very least he doesn't want to be seen as holding his young star back. And from
what we've heard from Pryor
this spring, it doesn't look like anyone is going to be able to do that.
Reasons for Optimism
The changes to the OSU offense for 2009 won't be so much a function of a major shift in outlook as they are dictated by necessity. Beanie, the big battering ram I-back, is gone. The huge but slow left guard-left tackle combination is gone too. A more athletic offensive line will be one result of the turnover. In fact, the 2009 offense would look different if they didn't change a thing in the playbook. The starting fullback, wide receivers, and tight end are gone in addition to Beanie and the two offensive linemen, Boone and Rehring. But two consecutive banner years in recruiting have the program stocked with upcoming talent, and even with Wells gone, Pryor will have an enviable group of offensive weapons at his command.
My optimism centers around Tressel and Pryor, and the personal bond and shared commitment they seem to have to make the OSU offense better than it has been. Pryor is quite obviously an immense and rare talent, but he also is possessed of an intensity and a competitiveness that is itself all too rare in the modern day player. He just went through his first off-season as a collegian, and is having his first spring camp. By all accounts, he's a very coachable kid, with a keen understanding that as a team, the Buckeyes must make every minute of every practice count, because, as he says, "I don't want to be beaten, and I don't want to let my team down -- we don't want to be beaten." How can you not love hearing that?
Pryor is up to 238 lbs. after lifting and working out diligently all winter, but what he seems to relish is getting back to football, and getting better as a passer and as a team leader. For me, that attitude is as important as his considerable physical talent. His focus in the spring will be on his passing mechanics and on getting the reps necessary to execute better in all phases of the offense, but especially in the precision passing game.
To succeed in the rushing attack in 2009, the Buckeyes will have to use as much deception as power, dealing as they are with smaller backs, and with opponents keying on Pryor. Boom Herron will return at the top of the running back depth chart, with a finally healthy Brandon Saine backing him up. Herron has added weight in muscle as well, and is said to be in great shape coming into spring ball. Two talented freshmen arrive in the fall, and both Jamaal Berry and Carlos Hyde may get a chance to contribute early, making it sort of a committee approach, for better or worse.
From the sounds of it, the Bucks won't be abandoning the I-formation anytime soon, but will likely be running more plays out of the shotgun and its variations....like the 'pistol' formation, in which a running back lines up behind the QB in a shortened shotgun drop. They will experiment with more motion from running backs and wide receivers as a way to create uncertainty and confusion on the defense. The depth of talent on the roster would seem to help in that regard. Just using four different running backs instead of one, and six receivers instead of three would cause a certain amount of defensive confusion regardless of what they were doing out there.
The receivers will be faster, if less experienced in 2009. DeVier Posey and Dane Sanzenbacher are on the spring depth chart as the starters at WR, but the speedy trio of Taurian Washington, Ray Small and Flash Thomas will all see plenty of action too, and one of them may take over on the outside, bumping the somewhat slower Sanzenbacher to the more logical slot position. Freshman wide receiver James Jackson has enrolled early and may already be the fastest Buckeye on the roster. Washington has once again shown well in spring practice, but needs to carry it over into meaningful playing time this fall. Duron Carter and Chris Fields are two more incoming freshmen that will be competing for field time.
Hope springs too that the Buckeyes might rediscover the role of the tight end in the passing game. Redshirt freshman Jake Stoneburner will join returning starter Jake Ballard and Nic Dilullo at tight end. The Buckeyes realize the matchup problems they could create with the size (6'5", 230), speed (4.6), and hands of Stoneburner, who came in as a wide receiver but has really just outgrown the position. So the matchup will be there. The question is whether or not Tressel will try to exploit it in game situations. What next?....throwing to the running backs?
On the offensive line, Mike Adams has fully recovered from his freshman year shoulder surgery, and the highly-touted 6'8", 315 lb. tackle from Dublin will be the starter at left tackle. The other bookend tackle from the 2008 class, J.B. Shugarts, may eventually start on the right side, but he is recovering from shoulder surgery as well, and will miss spring ball. The spring depth chart shows the versatile senior Jim Cordle at right tackle.
Justin Boren, who sat out 2008 after transferring from up north, will be the Buckeyes' new left guard, and Bryant Browning, the starter at right tackle in 2008, will be moved inside, and is currently projected as the starter at right guard. That leaves Mike Brewster, who took over from Cordle at center early last year as a freshman, as the only offensive lineman returning to his 2008 position for the new campaign.
All the turnover on this 2009 edition of the Buckeyes screams "Look out for 2010", and that may be a healthy way for Buckeye fans to approach the coming season. But remember, we were saying the same thing going into 2007, and that team ended up in the national title game.
From where I sit, the key question to be answered by the 2009 Buckeyes is whether the "walk" will match the "talk" where changes and enhancements to Tressel's offense are concerned. I'm still not 100% sure if my current optimism is just the habitual, annual variety, born of a certain blind allegiance to the program, or if there's really something more to it than that.
My sense is though, that Jim Tressel is a man on a mission, and that he is determined to build an offensive concept around Terrelle Pryor that will be worthy of the young man's physical gifts, and those of his complementary players. And I have an equally strong sense that there burns in the gut of Terrelle Pryor a competitive fire that might just be able to overcome any restrictions the offensive scheme may try to impose on him.
2008 proved that seniority and experience can be overrated. If nothing else, 2009 will be a different group of Buckeyes, perhaps one with a youthful exuberance that will make up for their relative inexperience. There's that habitual optimism showing again.
We'll take a look at how the 2009 defense shapes up in spring ball in the next edition of
, and I'll have a full report on the April 25th Spring Game. All the data you need for OSU spring football is in
this handy pdf
, courtesy of the OSU Athletic Information Dept.
What others are saying...
- ESPN.com's Big Ten blogger
Rob Oller - Columbus Dispatch blogger
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Doug Lesmerises of the PD, on OSU spring football
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