Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Questions abound for Buckeyes

Depleted defense looks for new blood

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - More than 57,000 paying customers watched Ohio State's spring intrasquad game Saturday, and just about all of them went home happy.

"It was a great experience to get a lot of playing time in front of that many people," redshirt freshman wide receiver/kick returner Santonio Holmes said. "I learned a lot."

The real work now begins for the Buckeyes coaches, who will spend the next few weeks dissecting videos from the scrimmage and the 14 spring practices which preceded it.

"Some guys that have not been in Ohio Stadium under pressure got in some of those pressure situations and had a chance to get themselves on film," head coach Jim Tressel said. "It's one thing to watch other guys on film. To watch yourself on film under pressure, that will be very valuable."

Gone are five starters on defense - safeties Donnie Nickey and Michael Doss, linebackers Cie Grant and Matt Wilhelm and defensive tackle Kenny Peterson - along with punter Andy Groom and back-up wide receiver Chris Vance. Several players missed the spring with injuries, including three-fourths of the first-team defensive line and several on the offensive line.

If everyone heals properly, the Buckeyes still must answer several nagging questions before the opening kickoff against Washington at 8 p.m. on Aug. 30.

Who replaces LBs, safeties?

Sophomore linebackers A.J. Hawk and Mike D'Andrea were productive during the spring game and in the weeks leading up to it. They should be a good fit to take the places of the fast Grant and the smart Wilhelm, making up for youthful mistakes with a lot of athletic ability.

With Hawk and D'Andrea joining Robert Reynolds (who missed the spring with an injury) at the three linebacker spots, there might not be any drop-off at all.

At safety, the Buckeyes aren't nearly as settled. Tyler Everett, Will Allen and Nate Salley still have a lot to learn, and not much time to learn it.

Will the offense be better?

All 11 starters are back, but that doesn't mean there aren't doubts. In five of their final six Big Ten games last year, the defense had to control the closing minutes for Ohio State to escape with a win. Not many times does a team score 19 (Wisconsin), 13 (Penn State), 10 (Purdue), 23 (including an overtime touchdown, at Illinois) and 14 points (Michigan) and win every game.

Freshman tailback Maurice Clarett was not healthy in any of those games and the Buckeyes suddenly had a predictable, tentative and flawed offense dedicated to holding on until the defense carried the day.

A year of seasoning should boost the production by the skill players while increasing the protection provided by what was a young line a year ago.

So the linemen got a steady dose of blitzes and a crash course in pass-blocking this spring, with the goal of diversifying the offense and steeling it for what's ahead.

Who can help right now?

A year ago, Clarett graduated early from high school so he could get a leg up on the competition during spring workouts. This year, Ashton Youboty and Donte Whitner did the same and may have played themselves into the cornerback picture this fall.

Defensive ends Jay Penton and Jay Richardson, flanker Holmes, offensive linemen Mike Datish and John Conroy, receivers Roy Hall and John Hollins and linebacker Redgie Arden all had solid springs and may have earned a long, hard look later in the summer.

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