Wednesday, April 13, 2011
Tressel, Buckeyes busy with task at hand
By Adam Rittenberg
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There will be a time when Jim Tressel has to give up the thing all coaches covet -- control.
It might not be until Sept. 3, when Tressel begins serving a five-game suspension for violating NCAA rules and doesn't join his Ohio State team at Ohio Stadium for the opener against Akron. It might happen sooner, if the NCAA decides to impose stronger penalties against the coach that would prohibit him from his regular duties.
But Tressel isn't ready to enter that realm yet. If he's concerned about his uncertain future, one he can't control, he's not showing it.
"I really haven't given it much thought," Tressel told ESPN.com after a recent spring practice. "I've always tried not to think too much about things I don't have any control over, and obviously that's one of them. It's been a little different, but in our world, you're so busy.
"You don't have much time to think about what's different."
Things will be different for Ohio State this season.
Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor are participating fully in spring practice but will miss the first five games of the season.
The Buckeyes will be without five players -- quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four other starters -- for the first five games because of NCAA violations. Tressel's self-imposed suspension for not coming forward with information about the players' violations will keep him off the sideline for the same span. Luke Fickell, the team's co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach, will handle the head-coaching duties for the first time in his career while Tressel sits.
And there's the looming NCAA investigation that could bring potentially crippling penalties for a program that can only be described as dominant during Tressel's tenure.
"People from the outside will look and say, 'Oh, let's see how they handle this,'" Fickell said.
The Big Ten's flagship program, a team that has won or shared the past six conference titles and claimed back-to-back BCS bowl victories, is facing its greatest challenge in recent memory.
Will the great Scarlet and Gray tower come tumbling down in 2011?
"I'm sure they would want that," senior defensive end Nathan Williams said of the Buckeyes' adversaries. "We're six-time Big Ten champions and you've got every single Big Ten team looking to take you off the top of the mountain.
"We're not going to let that happen."
Tressel still has control of the squad this spring, and the coach isn't wasting a nanosecond.
He buzzed around the field during a practice last week, lining up as a defensive back during one sequence and mixing it up with players before providing instruction. Ohio State must replace 24 seniors and prepare for the early season absences of Pryor and others, so Tressel has plenty to occupy his mind this spring.
"It's like nothing ever happened," center Mike Brewster said. "We know there's adversity ahead of us, but like [Tressel] told me the other day, 'There's fun in the challenge of it. I believe in you guys.' Just like we believe in him. There's a mutual respect like, together, we can do this."
According to Fickell, Tressel doesn't discuss his future with the staff.
"He's a rock," Fickell said. "When times are tough, it's almost like he raises his level. He doesn't show it, he doesn't look for any pity. You wouldn't know there was any different situation inside this bubble. It's been pretty much business as usual."
Some could argue Tressel is in denial. Maybe the future is too daunting to think about.
How tough is it not knowing what's ahead?
"What's the alternative?" Tressel countered.
What about that first game? How tough will it be to stay away?
"I don't know," he replied. "I'm going to be a beginner at that. I haven't started preparing for that, either, because we've got work to do."
Ohio State's personnel situation has served as one heck of a distraction for Tressel and his staff this spring.
The coaches are evaluating a group of quarterbacks that includes only two players with game experience (Joe Bauserman and Kenny Guiton) and a combined 49 career pass attempts. DeVier Posey's suspension leaves Ohio State without any proven receivers. The Buckeyes also are looking to replace All-Big Ten players at left tackle (Mike Adams) and running back (Dan Herron) for the first five games.
Seven starters depart on defense and Solomon Thomas, a possible starter at defensive end, is part of the suspended group. Fickell notes that the defense loses 1,100 of its 1,400 production points from last season.
Opportunities are out there, and Ohio State is confident it can reload one more time.
"We're Ohio State," Williams said. "We recruit good players and they're capable of stepping in."
Ohio State will need to be a player-driven team in 2011, especially with its head coach missing for games against Akron, Toledo, Miami, Colorado and Michigan State. Veterans like Brewster and Williams will do their part on Saturdays, and Tressel has repeatedly pointed out that the five suspended players aren't shirking their responsibilities in practice.
"Not that I didn't think they would, but when you have some disappointment, the natural tendency is to sit back and maybe feel bad for yourself," Tressel said. "But those guys have been extraordinary. Human nature could have been that one withdraws. But they sure haven't."
Neither has their coach.
Brewster entered the spring thinking the team simply needs to find a way to survive the first five games. His view since has changed.
"I'm seeing that we can really do this," he said. "Seeing how guys are responding, I've been really, really impressed.
"Our focus can't be to survive. Our focus has to be to win."