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Written by Dan Wismar

Dan Wismar

Sullinger423-0. There are four road games and three tough home contests left on the regular season schedule, and then the conference tournament follows. Surely Thad Matta’s Buckeyes are going to drop a game or two. Aren’t they?

Thursday’s tight win over Michigan (3-7) proved that even a sub-500 conference opponent can put a scare into No. 1, if the favorites come out flat. Once again though, the opponent had no answer for Jared Sullinger in crunch time, and the second fastest start ever for Ohio State continued with a 62-53 win over the Wolverines. But projecting 34-0?  Nah. Can’t happen.

For the 2010-2011 Buckeyes, key players have bad games and these guys still win. They count on freshmen to play important roles, and somehow get by. And they have a guy who can just flat take over in the late going.  But still, it’s just a matter of when they’ll drop one, not if they’re going to. Right?

Going undefeated into February is so rare in the modern era that it’s not even something you really want to see happen as a fan. OSU is just the fourth team in the last eight years to be unbeaten this late in the season, and it has been 20 years since a team went into the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record, (UNLV, 1991). Besides, they play in Madison next Saturday, and Thad Matta has never won there. You’ll recall it hasn’t been a good year for unbeaten OSU teams traveling to Wisconsin.

If they survive that test, the Bucks could just as easily get knocked off at Purdue on the 20th, or in State College on the 1st of March. How long can the Buckeyes’ loss total match Sully’s uniform number? The pressure of that big fat zero will build with every game. Players tighten up. Officials get caught up in upset fever. An undefeated regular season is so improbable... it’s almost unthinkable.

So if it’s unthinkable, why does it seem like right now the odds of it happening are about 50-50?  This bunch doesn’t rattle easily. They should be favored in every game. The Big Ten isn’t as strong as people thought it was going to be. In other’s thinkable.

In my more lucid moments, I don’t foresee a perfect regular season, so the only reason I’m writing on the topic of the unbeaten Buckeyes is that, for the moment, I can.  Carpe Diem, and pass the popcorn.

As for winning it all, the oddsmakers still like Duke (3-1) better than OSU (5-1) to take home the trophy. For followers of the team, it’s enough to have the luxury of musing about this in the first week of February.  For local sports fans, the Buckeyes are an oasis in the desert. Excuse us for now, while we drink this in.

There are a couple of nice profiles of Sullinger online in the last few days. ESPN’s Dana O’Neill tracks the family basketball legacy for the Sullingers, and Jason King of Yahoo Sports has a flattering portrait of the big freshman. (No tats for Sully). Both are worth a look.

Here’s video of Sully’s blind half-court shot from the other day in shoot-around.


Recruiting Afterthoughts

Carter2It’s fashionable among the OSU media these days to engage in some earnest hand-wringing about the offensive line recruiting situation, and I’m nothing if not a slave to fashion. First the staff lost out on Glenville’s Aundrey Walker to USC, and then had one of their four O-line recruits get arrested before he could be announced as a member of the new class. (Not the fault of anyone at OSU...just bad luck.)  After bringing in just one offensive lineman (Andrew Norwell) last season, and then whiffing on a couple more this year, the overall numbers are down for Jim Bollman’s troops. That’s half of the concern.

Because three of the four 2011 O-line commits for OSU were not highly-rated national recruits (Brian Bobek was Scout’s No. 1 center prospect), there is concern about the quality as well as the quantity of linemen beyond the 2011 season. Ohio State wound up the bridesmaid for Seantrel Henderson and the late Matt James at signing day a year ago, and were apparently determined not to be left at the altar again in 2011. They identified three northeast Ohio kids that they liked very early in the process, made their offers, and got quick commitments from JFK’s Chris Carter (pictured), Antonio Underwood of Shaker Hts., and Tommy Brown from Akron Firestone.

The reaction in national recruiting circles at the time was “Who?” To be fair to those young men, they all appear to have the requisite size and good athleticism, and at first blush look like they fit the profile of the power offensive guards that Bollman prefers. Brown may eventually project at tackle, but Carter and Underwood are guards all the way, and Carter’s future is at best up in the air now. As we have learned in the last decade...when in doubt, trust The Vest.

The optimists say you only have to look back as far as Bryant Browning, a relative unknown from Cleveland who developed into a 3-year starter and an All-Big Ten performer at guard, to find an example of a prospect comparable to this year’s kids. The skeptics see a trend since the 2008 “Block O” group of Adams, Shugarts and Brewster that has seen the OSU staff fail to land the elite prospects on the offensive line that they seem to be able to find for the other position groups.

While I think the concern is a legitimate one, it’s not time to panic...yet. Corey Linsley and Jack Mewhort look quite capable of holding down the two guard spots vacated by Browning and Justin Boren, and they have three years each of eligibility remaining. Bobek can play guard as well as center, and the coaches might be getting a pleasant surprise in Ivan Blackman (6’ 3”, 330), a transfer from Robert Morris of all places, who could help at guard as well. That still leaves this year’s freshmen outside the two-deep, able to grow and develop at a normal pace.

The offensive tackle situation is a good deal more precarious. While the trio of Shugarts, Marcus Hall and Norwell can probably get the job done in 2011 until Adams gets back off his suspension, the two-deep gets extremely thin when Adams and Shugarts go away after one more season. Even in 2011, an injury to an offensive tackle could be devastating, especially if it happens before Adams gets back. If you don’t count 2011 freshman Tommy Brown, who might be a tackle, the Buckeyes have just four true offensive tackles on the roster, and two of them are seniors. That’s not good. Even at that, we’re giving Hall the benefit of some doubt, since many people think he’s better at guard. Plus he’s coming off a full season in which he was not playing football. Mewhort could play tackle in a pinch, but you’re counting on him as a starter at guard.

The numbers problem at tackle makes it almost a no-brainer to switch one or more Buckeye defensive linemen over to the other side of the ball. Speculation (and that’s all it is) has centered on 2010 freshman DE Darryl Baldwin, who redshirted this past fall, and who has both the size and the athleticism to play OT. Other names you’ll hear tossed around are 2011 recruits Michael Bennett and Chase Farris, and maybe even Adam Bellamy, who would be in the regular rotation at DT, but who was an outstanding two-way lineman at Aurora. (The OSU coaches would no doubt be surprised to hear which players program observers have decided to move, but that’s par for the course for them, I imagine)

2012 brings St. Ed’s star Kyle Kalis at tackle, and the rest of the in-state class of offensive linemen in 2012 looks to be talented and deep, but the preference would be to not count on true freshmen to be in the two-deep, especially on the O-line. But the OSU staff has sown this problem, and by 2012 if not sooner, it will be time to reap the consequences.

One On Deck, and One in the Hole

CardaleJones1Glenville’s Cardale Jones was the second best quarterback in Ohio this year, but even so, OSU quarterbacks coach Nick Siciliano was perhaps exaggerating a bit when he called Braxton Miller and Jones “the two best quarterbacks in the country” as a way of explaining the staff’s decision to grab them both for the Buckeyes.  Right up until signing day it didn’t appear that Jones would be offered a place in the class, but where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Jones will have to attend a prep school before he can become eligible academically to enroll at OSU, making him officially a part of the 2012 class if things work out. Then if he redshirts his first season in Columbus, the OSU staff will have managed to put two years of eligibility between Miler and Jones.

It’s a planned outcome that suits the purposes of both the recruit and the program, and one that is agreed upon in advance by both parties before an offer is extended. That would distinguish the arrangement from the lamentable practice of oversigning that was condemned recently by the President of the University of Florida.

Bernie Machen was referring to the practice of offering more scholarships than there are spots available, and then at the last minute, pressing several of the recruits to either delay their enrollment for a year (“grayshirting”) or pressuring them to take medical redshirt status as way to get around the school’s scholarship limit of 85 at any one time.

The other practice that has been honed to an art form by SEC schools as a way to circumvent the recent crackdown on oversigning by the conference, is to “stash” players at prep schools or junior colleges, keeping them from competing programs, and allowing them to get the academic act together (while developing physically) only to be plucked when ripe at a later date. If that sounds like exactly what Ohio State is doing with Cardale Jones, is.

The biggest difference is one of scale. The website provides a clearinghouse of sorts for information on all forms of the practice, including  a recent piece by The O-Zone’s Tony Gerdeman discussing Alabama coach Nick Saban’s convenient confusion about exactly how many players the Crimson Tide have on scholarship. Gerdeman has written previously on the topic, showing how the SEC sets the oversigning standard by which all others are measured. On Friday, Stewart Mandel of SI took aim at Saban for the deception, and used the example of Jim Tressel to make his point about how it can be done differently.

The other difference is that Tressel isn’t sending Jones off to a prep school because he doesn’t have a scholarship available, or due to a numbers crunch of any sort. The path Jones is traveling is one that has been taken by at least two other Glenville players in recent years, neither of whom ever ended up enrolling at OSU. They simply didn’t have the academic standing to get into Ohio State, and yet they wanted to make every effort to eventually play football for the Buckeyes.

The two Glenville kids didn’t make it. Current OSU running back Carlos Hyde went the prep school route a year ago, and did succeed in getting his grades in order and realizing his goal of becoming a Buckeye. The point is that Tressel has always stayed well within the 85 scholarship maximum, leaving himself enough wiggle room to offer one or two scholarships a year to deserving walk-ons...or the sons of Heisman winners.

The Cardale Jones arrangement served to help a kid that needed help....and let’s face it....of course it served to bring talent into the football program as well. What is wasn’t designed to do was circumvent the scholarship limit. To equate what Ohio State is doing with Cardale Jones with the wholesale manipulation of large numbers of athletes going on in God’s Conference and elsewhere just isn’t a fair comparison.
Bill Kurelic’s Bucknuts story on Cardale Jones

ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” video on oversigning.


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