During the summer, Jim Tressel drives around Columbus in a 1985
Dodge Ram pickup, a rust-dappled homage to steel-toed boots and
calloused hands. "It's a workin' truck," the Buckeyes' coach said
one hot afternoon in July, as he hopped out of the cab in shorts
and a gray T-shirt. "Summer's a working time, so it's just
right." Make no mistake, the truck is also a symbol because even
a team that went 14-0 and won its first national championship in
34 years can't get too cocky when the coach's ride looks like
something that should be hauling manure. The message is clear:
new year, new team. There will be no residual props from last
season, which culminated in a 31-24 double-overtime win over
Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
Tressel has been inoculating the Buckeyes against bigtiming since
the winter. "The theme is, What are we gonna do now?" says senior
strong safety Will Allen. "Coach has been telling us we've got a
bigger bull's-eye on our back. We're the national champions."
During spring practice Ohio State players met every day at 7 a.m.
to watch game tapes from the 2002 season. Tressel had done this
before, but these sessions took on added significance. "Watching
those games," says senior linebacker Robert Reynolds, "you
realized how lucky we were. On defense alone, you take away the
lucky plays, we could have been 10-4 instead of 14-0."
There's enough talent in Columbus to repeat, although it might
have to function differently. A year ago Tressel, whose football
philosophy is no less conservative than his taste in vehicles,
leaned on a stifling defense, a world-class kicking game and a
close-to-the-vest offense. That approach will be tested now that
six starters--including All-America strong safety Mike Doss,
linebacker Matt Wilhelm (the team's leading tackler) and punter
Andy Groom--are gone.
But one returning player does allow Tressel to loosen things up.
Junior Chris Gamble looms as the first full-time two-way player
in the two-platoon era. Last year Gamble, already a terrific
flanker, lobbied his way into the defensive secondary--"Every day
we'd be doing one-on-ones with the receivers, and Chris would
say, 'Let me play D, let me play D,'" says Allen--and by the end
of the season he was playing nearly every down, plus returning
punts and kickoffs. "Now," says Gamble, "I've got to get on the
field goal block team." Says Tressel, "We'll think about it. He's
amazing coming off the corner."
Gamble, who has added 10 pounds and now weighs 194, cruises
through a hectic game day or practice routine like a man walking
the beach. "I've got everything down pat now," he says. "I split
everything down the middle, half offense and half defense for
drills and meetings. My NFL future is probably at defensive back,
but playing receiver makes me a better defensive player, too."
His goals for 2003 are outlandish by normal standards: 10
touchdown receptions and 10 interceptions. Of course, Gamble
Fans in Columbus expect the offense to be more than ordinary too.
All the starters return, including senior quarterback Craig
Krenzel, the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP; senior split end Michael
Jenkins, who caught 61 passes for 1,076 yards; and (hopefully for
the Buckeyes) sophomore tailback Maurice Clarett, who rushed for
1,237 yards despite missing all of three games and parts of two
others with a shoulder injury. "If we're going to win, we can't
do everything the same way we did last year," says senior
offensive tackle Shane Olivea. "Teams put eight or nine in the
box, and we tried to run it down their throat. The coaches have
got to let us mix it up."
Clarett, a precocious, 6-foot, 230-pound NFL-ready runner, will
be at the center of any game plan provided he remains eligible
after spending the summer under a cloud over allegations that he
had gotten preferential treatment on at least one exam and
received improper gifts, and after he admitted that he had filed
an erroneous police report by overstating the value of items that
had been stolen last spring out of a vehicle he'd borrowed from a
Columbus car dealer. In a program in which team unity is preached
daily, Clarett is an enigma. He often skipped summer conditioning
drills to train in his hometown of Warren, Ohio. But Tressel
says, "When you look at Maurice, you know he's been training."
History warns that winning back-to-back titles is
difficult--since 1979 only Nebraska (1994 and '95) has done it.
Ohio State embraces the challenge. "No woulda, couldas, that's
what we're saying," says senior center Alex Stepanovich. "We
want this even more than last year." If they get it, Tressel's
truck will come in handy in January to haul off the national
2002 RECORD 14-0 (8-0, T1 in Big Ten)
FINAL AP RANK 1
RETURNING STARTERS 16
KEY RETURNEES (2002 stats)
RB Maurice Clarett (Soph.)
Set slew of OSU freshman rushing records
CB-WR Chris Gamble (Jr.)
Team-high four INTs; second in catches with 31
QB Craig Krenzel (Sr.)
Perfect 14-0 record as regular-season starter
DT Darrion Scott (Sr.)
Run-stopper also led team with 8 1/2 sacks
K Mike Nugent (Jr.)
Groza Award finalist made 23 straight FGs
Years since a Buckeyes freshman had started the season opener at
running back (1943), until Maurice Clarett did it in 2002.
In June, Ohio State signed coach Jim Tressel to a six-year
contract that runs through the 2008 season. The show of faith
was well deserved. Not only does Tressel get the most out of his
players, but also his no-nonsense demeanor connects with
Buckeyes fans. Even better, Ohio State got him at a bargain
price: His 2003 salary ($1.3 million) is still less than what
Wisconsin's Barry Alvarez and Michigan State's John L. Smith
will earn this year.
AUG. 30 WASHINGTON
SEPT. 6 SAN DIEGO STATE
13 N.C. STATE
20 BOWLING GREEN
OCT. 11 AT WISCONSIN
25 AT INDIANA
NOV. 1 AT PENN STATE
8 MICHIGAN STATE
22 AT MICHIGAN