Game week has finally arrived, but Ohio State still has some starting positions up for grabs. Let's take a look at the positional battles, starting with the defensive side of the football.
At defensive end, Mike Kudla was expected to start opposite Simon Fraser. However, Kudla injured his neck in camp and it is not clear if he will play in the opener. Meanwhile, Jay Richardson has been impressive most of camp - including the jersey scrimmage - and is the odds on favorite to win the job if Kudla can't go. Even if Kudla is cleared to play, Richardson will see plenty of time in the D-line rotation. His rangy 6-foot-6 frame could give offenses fits off the edge this year.
With the sudden lack of depth at DE (remember, Marcel Frost, now a TE, was second-team DE in the spring; Redgie Arden had been running with the 2's in camp) true freshman Vernon Gholston might be pressed into action. Another option is true freshman Alex Barrow, but it would be nice to redshirt at least one of those guys.
At defensive tackle, Quinn Pitcock seems to have locked down one of the jobs. But who will line up next to him? Joel Penton has been running with the first team in camp. The backups right now are David Patterson and Sian Cotton. I'll go not very far out on a limb and say Patterson ends up as the starter, but Penton and Cotton will play quite a bit off the bench.
At middle linebacker, Anthony Schlegel and Mike D'Andrea are in a heated battle, and it's a situation that will only end up helping the team. Schlegel is a proven college commodity from his time at Air Force and D'Andrea was just beginning to come on last year prior to a season-ending shoulder injury. Put your money on Schlegel to line up as the starter, but look for a lot of D'Andrea on the field as well. In addition to playing MLB, he can also line up on the outside. There has also been talk of a 3-4 defense at times, giving even more playing time to Schlegel and D'Andrea.
At nickelback, Ashton Youboty seems to be the man to beat. Other candidates include Donte Whitner, Ted Ginn and Harlen Jacobs. Youboty is probably the best true cover man in the group. At least three of these guys will need to play a lot this year, especially against pass-happy teams. Whitner will be on the field a lot. Ginn will obviously play, but how much will he play defense? He might already be the best kick returner on the team, but is he ready to be a third-down defensive back as well? You have to like his chances. Can Jacobs finally contribute in his senior year? It would be a pleasant surprise. We've always heard about his good size and speed, but young players continue to pass him on the depth chart. Overall, there is very good depth here. The Buckeyes have two good starting corners in Dustin Fox and E.J. Underwood and a lot of hungry players vying for that nickelback role. It's a good situation to have.
At safety, Tyler Everett has been working with the 1's in practice. But can he hold off Whitner for the job? Both of these guys played pretty well as true freshmen - Everett in 2002 and Whitner last year. Everett was limited with injuries last year but has obviously impressed the coaches with his play in camp. Also in the mix is Brandon Mitchell, who is a solid player in his own right. There is obviously very good depth at safety alongside starter Nate Salley.
At punter, Kyle Turano has nudged ahead of Josh Huston for the job and it wasn't hard to see that coming. Neither of them can boom the ball, but Turano usually has better hang time and is also more consistent at angling the ball to the sidelines. No matter who ends up winning the job, expect an average of just under 40 yards per punt (wow, that's a long way from Andy Groom and B.J. Sander). The key will be net punting, which is where kicking the ball to the sidelines comes in handy. However, the danger with that is more shanks, but OSU will not have the luxury of just lining up and booming 50-60 yarders this year.
Now, switching to the offensive side of the ball… I was going to skip quarterbacks all together because there really isn't a battle for the starting job there, and hasn't been for quite sometime. The opinion here is that when Justin Zwick played meaningful snaps against Northwestern last season, Jim Tressel announced his starter for the 2004 season.
Now we are hearing that Troy Smith will play against Cincinnati in a reserve role. But how much will he really play? If the game is in doubt, I really don't see Zwick coming out of the game. Tressel might say some things to appease the fans, but he does not like a two-quarterback system. Troy Smith will play, but probably not very much. Look for a lot of Zwick in a controlled offense, very similar to what we saw the last two years. The key for Zwick will be making the big plays down the field the few times they are called.
At the backup fullback/H-back position, Stan White and Brandon Schnittker will both play a lot this year. The Buckeyes like to use a lot of two tight end sets, but with only three TEs that are "game-ready" (Ryan Hamby, Rory Nicol, Frost) the backup fullbacks will have to play some tight end. Running backs coach Dick Tressel said over the summer that White would a player to watch this season and camp has proven that to be true. White has drawn comparisons to Frank Wycheck, looking very smooth in that H-back role. However, neither White nor Schnittker are especially good lead blockers. Their strength is their versatility.
There has obviously been much discussion about the battle at right tackle, and here we are just days away from the opener and it's still a three-man heat. No one has really separated themselves yet. Kirk Barton, T.J. Downing and Tim Schafer are all in the mix and the coaches like something different about each of them. I am going to take a shot in the dark and say Barton will be the starter, but take that with a grain of salt. Just last week, right guard Mike Kne said that Downing and Schafer were running a little bit ahead.
The two players that don't win the starting job will still see playing time. Someone will need to be the backup RT, and OSU also needs a backup left guard with Andree Tyree still out. The starter at LG is Doug Datish and he is very inexperienced. The Bucks need a solid backup at that spot in case Datish goes down, or is ineffective.
Santonio Holmes obviously has the flanker position locked down, but who will start at split end? Roy Hall still has issues with consistency, but there is a very good chance he will open the season as the starter. It will either be Hall or senior John Hollins. I am going with Hall based on the fact that has all the tools to be a good one and I have faith that WRs coach Darell Hazell will bring out the best in him. And with the season-ending injury to Devin Jordan, the No. 3 split end will likely be true freshman Devon Lyons. It will be exciting to see what he can do. He has a Big Ten-ready body.
At kick/punt returner, Ginn's expected contributions have already been mentioned. Look for him on both units and make sure you pick another time to make a run to the fridge or bathroom.
Holmes will likely be the primary punt returner and might also return kicks as well. Another strong possibility at KR is Bam Childress. However, if he couldn't win the job last year when the Buckeyes were amongst the worst kick return teams in the country, what would make you think he could win the job now?
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