Blue Ribbon Preview: Ohio Bobcats
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College football fans who follow only the "big time" programs probably remember Frank Solich as the guy who couldn't live up to the impossible standards set by Tom Osborne and Bob Devaney at Nebraska.
Solich won 58 games in six years as Osborne's successor, yet got the ax after the 2003 regular season. That didn't work out so well for Nebraska -- it led into the Bill Callahan era -- but it became a blessing for Ohio. Solich took over the Bobcats on Dec. 16, 2004 and has built them into the class of the MAC East. Some might say they're the class of the entire 13-team league.
Ohio has won 46 games the last six seasons, which is more than any other MAC program. The Bobcats have played in four bowls the last six years. They won 10 games last year for the first time since 1968. They also won a bowl game -- a last-second 24-23 victory over Utah State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl -- for the first time in school annals.
The only thing that stops Ohio from being the unmistakable class of the MAC? An actual MAC championship. The Bobcats owned a 20-0 halftime lead over Northern Illinois on Dec. 2 at Ford Field in Detroit. But then Ohio's offense, which set single-season school records for points and yards and so much more, went flat. The Bobcats managed just 76 total yards in the second half and threw an interception.
Meanwhile, NIU's Chandler Harnish (the league MVP) threw one touchdown pass ... and another ... and another. When the Huskies' Mathew Sims kicked a 33-yard field goal on the game's final play, Ohio suffered a 23-20 loss that serves as its fuel for 2012.
"There are always ways to get better," Solich said. "Obviously one thing that jumps right out at you is winning a MAC championship. That's never easy."
But the Bobcats appear to be in better position than any other school to get that accomplished this season. Tyler Tettleton returns at quarterback and Ohio plans to run its no-huddle offense at an even quicker tempo to take advantage of his experience and skills.
Then there's the defense, which Solich believes ought to be the best in his eight years at Ohio. "I like what we're all about there," Solich said. "We have more people coming back than we've ever had. We have more depth than we've ever had."
Throw in the return of senior kicker Matt Weller -- voted the 2011 MAC Special Teams Player of the Year -- and Ohio appears to have the stuff to bring home its first MAC championship since Bill Hess' 1968 team finished the regular season undefeated.
Head Coach: Frank Solich (Nebraska '66)
Record at school: 50-40 (8 years)
Career record: 108-59 (14 years)
• Tim Albin (Northwest Oklahoma State '89) Asst. head coach/offensive coordinator/running backs
• Jimmy Burrow (Nebraska '76) Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator/safeties
• Gerry Gdowski (Nebraska '90) Assistant head coach/quarterbacks
• Ron Collins (Washington '87) Linebackers
• Dwayne Dixon (Florida '85) Wide receivers
• Brian Haines (Marietta '04) Tight ends/recruiting coordinator
• Keven Lightner (Nebraska '96) Offensive line
• Fred Reed (Mesa State '93) Defensive backs
• Jesse Williams (Sonoma State '88) Defensive line
There were two MAC quarterbacks who finished among the nation's Top 21 performers in total offense and passer efficiency. The first was NIU's Chandler Harnish, who earned the league's Most Valuable Player award and became the final pick in the NFL draft.
The second? None other than Ohio redshirt junior Tyler Tettleton (6-0, 200), who entered last season with just 23 passing attempts on his resume. His first season as the Bobcats starter better than anyone dreamed. He threw for 3,306 yards and 28 touchdowns (with just 10 interceptions) while rushing for 666 yards and 10 more scores. He finished 20th nationally in total offense (283.7 ypg) and 21st in efficiency rating (148.94).
Tettleton, who had the perfect mental and physical skill sets to take advantage of Ohio's decision to install the no-huddle offense in the offseason, set a dozen single-season school records on his way to being honored as the third-team All-MAC quarterback. The Bobcats also smashed nine team records, including for points (427) and total yards (449.3 avg.).
Tettleton is ensconced as the starter, but redshirt freshman Derrius Vick (6-1, 205) owns the athleticism to run Ohio's offense in the same fashion. Vick was a two-sport star in Lincoln, Neb., where his father, Derrick, started for two seasons on Nebraska's basketball team.
During Ohio's spring game, Vick posted better numbers than Tettleton as he hit 12-of-21 passes for 85 yards, a touchdown and 2 interceptions.
When he walked on at Ohio after leaving Iowa State, junior Beau Blankenship (5-9, 202) was better known as Tyler Tettleton's teammate at Norman (Okla.) North High School than as a viable alternative in the Bobcats running game.
While the graduated Donte Harden (986 yards), a third-team All-MAC pick, and junior Ryan Boykin (6-1, 221) earned more carries last season -- as expected -- Blankenship became an important factor during the second half of the year. In week nine at Central Michigan, Blankenship rushed 25 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He followed that with a 55-yard day against Bowling Green, 50 yards against Miami and 47 yards in the bowl game.
Blankenship wound up averaging 5.0 yards per carry (93 rushes, 462 yards, four TDs) and claiming the starting job over Boykin during spring ball. The powerful Boykin (104 carries, 435 yards, one TD) will get his share of carries as well. He was also adept as a receiver out of the backfield as he snagged 14 passes for 92 yards and one score.
Ohio doesn't have any other runners on the roster with college experience. Freshman Kyle Hammonds (5-8, 180) rushed for 1,340 yards and 20 TDs during his senior year at Solon (Ohio) High. Freshman Daz'mond Patterson (5-6, 178), who enrolled a semester early and made a strong impression during spring practice, was a two-time second-team all-state runner for Plant City (Fla.) High School.
LaVon Brazill and Riley Dunlop took advantage of the best passing season in Ohio history to put up big numbers in 2011. There's just one problem with that: Both were fifth-year seniors and need to be replaced.
Brazill, a second-team All-MAC performer, snagged 74 passes for 1,146 yards and 11 touchdowns. He set the school record for career receiving yards (2,403) before becoming the Indianapolis Colts' sixth-round pick. Dunlop ranked second on the squad with 43 catches, 586 yards and six scores.
Their departure leaves redshirt junior Donte Foster (6-1, 193) as Ohio's only returning starter. The split end caught 30 passes for 352 yards and five touchdowns. He scored in three of his final five games.
Senior Tyler Futrell (6-0, 179) and junior Mario Dovell (6-0, 200) finished the spring as the other starting receivers. Dovell's two-catch performance in last year's opener at New Mexico State marks the only time Dovell (12 catches, 183 yards) or Futrell (six catches, 90 yards) has posted more than one reception in a game.
Fifth-year senior Bakari Bussey (6-2, 205), who started four games in 2011, will be an important part of the rotation. He owns 20 career catches for 235 yards and one TD. Redshirt sophomore Chase Cochran (6-2, 182) made a 58-yard grab in the spring game.
Senior tight end Jordan Thompson (6-4, 248) ought to be a crucial contributor in his third year as a starter. Thompson caught 45 passes for 462 yards and five touchdowns over the last two seasons. Sophomore Derek Roback (6-3, 249) made five starts in his first season after converting from quarterback. He played a bigger role in the passing game down the stretch as he amassed five of his six catches in the final five games. That includes his first career touchdown in the bowl game.
Ohio needs to replace its bookend tackles. Right tackle Joe Flading, the Bobcats' only representative on the first-team All-MAC roster, ended his career with 39 consecutive starts. Left tackle A.J. Strum, a third-team all-league selection, started his final 33 games.
While this might sound like a potential chink in Ohio's armor, head Solich raved about the play of junior left tackle John Prior (6-6, 301) and junior right tackle Ryan McGrath (6-6, 304) after spring ball concluded. "They both looked good," Solich said. "McGrath really had a good spring."
Prior began his college career at Florida State (though he never played). McGrath made four starts in 2010. If those two are going to be fine, then it's going to be hard to dent Ohio's line. Senior right guard Eric Herman (6-4, 319), a second-team All-MAC pick, has led the Bobcats in pancakes the last three seasons. He owned 79 pancakes going to the bowl game.
Junior left guard Jon Lechner (6-5, 332), who started 22 games over the last two seasons, ranked second on Ohio's pancakes list. Senior Skyler Allen (6-3, 288) gives Ohio a third three-year starter on the line. He finished third in pancakes with 60.
Redshirt freshmen Bryce Dietz (6-5, 290), yet another recruit pulled out of Nebraska, and Mike McQueen (6-5, 305) are the future at the tackle spots while sophomore Sam Johnson (6-3, 316) is next in line at guard.
"I feel good about our offensive line," Solich said. "I think we'll be strong."
There are a lot of expectations on Ohio's defense this season. Upon hearing some of boss Frank Solich's thoughts on his unit's potential, veteran defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow wasn't sure whether to be proud or to go the self-deprecating route in order to ease the pressure.
Then Burrow declared that he has three guys worthy of starting at the defensive tackles -- and everyone knows how hard it is to find great players in the interior. It's one of many reasons Solich believes this could be Ohio's best defense in his eight seasons at the school.
Senior tackle Carl Jones (6-0, 245) enters his third year as a starter. He owns four career sacks with 70 tackles and one interception. Senior nose guard Neal Hunyh (6-3, 301) missed three games because of injuries, yet posted 32 tackles and four tackles for loss last season.
Then there's senior Corey Hasting (6-1, 261), a former walk-on who started just four games in 2011 yet piled up better numbers than either Jones or Hunyh. He rolled up 48 tackles and shared the team lead with 3.5 sacks. In an effort to get Hasting on the field more often, Burrow worked him at defensive end during spring ball.
"He could be penciled in as a starter at defensive end or defensive tackle or the nose," Burrow said.
If Hasting wins a job at defensive end, it won't be the one that has belonged to fifth-year senior Tremayne Scott (6-3, 257). The second-team All-MAC honoree was one of three Bobcats defenders to start all 14 games in 2011. He shared the team lead for TFL (eight) and sacks (3.5) while forcing two fumbles and ranking fourth on the squad with 62 tackles. "He's a long, athletic guy who's really smart," Burrow said.
Junior Nic Barber (6-3, 219) will battle Hasting at the other end. Barber delivered three sacks in last season's opener against New Mexico State but managed just one TFL the rest of the season. He finished the year well with three solo tackles against Utah State in the bowl game. "He's undersized, but fast," Burrow said.
Ohio picked up some help at defensive end from the junior college ranks during the offseason. Junior Ty Branz (6-2, 250) looks like the fourth guy in the rotation after impressing Burrow during the spring as "a tough guy, a full effort guy."
Junior transfer Wade Wells (6-3, 229) will also be in the mix for his pass-rushing skills.
The wild card at defensive end is redshirt freshman Andrew Bennett (6-6, 255), whose progress has been closely monitored by the coaches. "If you saw him, you'd say, 'Wow, look at that guy!' " Burrow said. "He runs like a 4.7." In a similar vein, Burrow can't wait to see how true sophomore Antwan Crutcher (6-1, 300) turns out at defensive tackle.
After sitting out the first six games last season, Crutcher produced nine tackles against Ball State in his college debut. Shoulder issues slowed him in the spring, but Burrow expects him to be fine in the fall. "He's going to be a real good player inside," Burrow said.
Whenever Solich and Burrow tout the potential of this year's defense, they never fail to pay homage to departed middle linebacker Noah Keller. He rolled up 438 tackles, 25.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, eight forced fumbles and three interceptions during his five-year career as the heart of Ohio's defense.
"He was quite a force for us," Burrow said. "We think we'll be OK, but that's a big loss."
Junior Keith Moore (6-0, 219), who played primarily at the Will last season, inherits Keller's spot in the middle. Though Moore didn't start any games last year, he finished second to Keller in tackles with 84 while intercepting two passes and registering five TFL.
"Keith was a walk-on who earned a scholarship in January," Burrow said. "He doesn't have as much size as Noah Keller, but he's faster. All three of our guys are fast."
Fifth-year senior Alphonso Lewis (6-1, 206), who made two starts at the Sam and five at the Will last fall, becomes the full-time strong-side 'backer this season. He was the team's third-leading tackler (64) while contributing three fumble recoveries and three pass breakups. Though Ohio normally removes the strong-side linebacker in passing situations in favor of a nickel back, Burrow wants Lewis to work at the other two linebacker spots in order to keep him on the field as much as possible.
Senior Jelani Woseley (6-2, 205) returns as the weak-side linebacker after starting nine games in 2011. Woseley, who returned an interception for a score against Gardner-Webb, finished fifth on the squad with 53 tackles. "He can play in space as well as inside the tackles," Burrow said.
There's a chance Moore could spend time at the Will because of the depth Ohio boasts at the Mike. The Bobcats go five-deep in the middle with redshirt freshman Ben Russell (6-1, 236), junior college transfer Tim Edmond (5-11, 240), sophomore Joe Stefanski (6-2, 236) and freshman Jovon Johnson (6-0, 215).
Sophomore A.J. Grady (6-1, 198) serves as Lewis' backup on the strong side as well as a standup end when Ohio goes to a three-man front.
"He's one of the 10 fastest guys on our team," Burrow said. "He keeps making progress as a linebacker."
As much as Burrow and Solich like their linebackers and defensive line, Ohio's secondary has the defense's best chance for brilliance.
The Bobcats' excellence begins with senior cornerback Travis Carrie (6-0, 212), a second-team All-MAC selection in 2011 after leading the league with 17 passes defended. That included a share of the MAC interceptions title with four. "Travis Carrie is primed to have a tremendous year as a corner and a punt returner," Solich said.
Then there's senior free safety Gerald Moore (6-1, 205), who ranked second on the team with 84 tackles while intercepting two passes. He didn't approach his 2009 numbers, when he earned freshman All-America honors with six interceptions, but Burrow thinks that could happen this fall.
"I thought toward the end of last year, he started to get back to his form in 2009," Burrow said. "He had a really great spring. I think he's a potential NFL guy because he's a 205-pound guy that can run 4.5s."
Ohio has plenty of options at the other safety spot between sophomore Josh Kristoff (6-0, 194), junior Xavier Hughes (6-1, 171) and sophomore Thad Ingol (5-10, 190). Hughes started the first six games and produced three interceptions and 24 tackles before suffering a shoulder injury that knocked him out through spring ball.
Kristoff delivered 52 tackles, one interception and five pass breakups after taking over for Hughes. Ingot and redshirt freshman Aaron Macer (6-0, 194) are regarded as the next wave at safety.
Sophomore Larenzo Fisher (5-11, 170) and junior Jamil Shaw (6-0, 208) will battle this fall for the right to replace Omar Leftwich, who won't return for his final year because of academic issues. Shaw started two games last year and broke up three passes and forced a fumble. Fisher accumulated 14 tackles.
Sophomore Nathan Carpenter (5-9, 197) handles the nickel during passing downs. He started seven games last year and rolled up 53 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups. Senior Mose Denton (6-1, 200) backs up.
With the explosive LaVon Brazill moving on the NFL, starting cornerback Travis Carrie moves up from secondary to primary punt returner. He averaged 10.4 yards per return as the main guy in 2010 and backed it up with a 12.5-yard average last season on 11 returns.
Donte Harden and senior Ryan Clark (5-9, 169) shared kick-return duties last season. With Harden having been graduated, Clark and his 22.6-yard average jumped to the top of the depth chart during the spring.
Ohio needs new snappers because incumbent Jeremy Lavoie did not return for his final year of eligibility. Redshirt freshman Tyler Lang (5-11, 193) enters the fall as the top snapper on punts while redshirt freshman Bubba Williams (6-1, 195) leads the pack on placement snaps.
Senior Matt Weller (6-0, 203) received terrific, yet mixed, reviews last season. The MAC News Media Association declared him to be the league's Special Teams Player of the Year after drilling 25-of-34 field-goal attempts and 48-of-49 extra-point tries. Texas A&M's Randy Bullock (29 of 33) was the only kicker in the FBS to make more field goals in 2011.
Weller set the school's single-season scoring record with 123 points. He owns Ohio's career record for extra points (120) and field goals (57). With 291 career points, he needs just 12 this year to break Kareem Wilson's record. In spite of being chosen the league's Special Teams Player of the Year and earning five MAC East Special Teams Player-of-the-Week honors, Weller was relegated to the second-team All-MAC unit (behind Northern Illinois' Mathew Sims).
Weller handled kickoffs last year and figures to do so again as untested redshirt freshman walk-on Josiah Yazdani (5-10, 201) is the only other kicker on the roster.
Redshirt freshman walk-on Grant Venham (6-3, 210) and Louisville transfer Nieco Teipel (6-1, 225), who's also a linebacker, are the candidates to replace two-year starter Paul Hershey. Venham finished spring ball at the top of the depth chart.
Whoever wins the job has some versatile shoes to fill. Not only was Hershey a solid punter -- he averaged 40.7 yards and knocked 25 punts inside the 20 with just six touchbacks during 2011 -- he was known as a threat to run. He had seven carries for 76 yards and one TD during his tenure.
Ohio sign just 19 players including four junior college transfers -- junior defensive ends Ty Branz and Wade Wells, junior wide receiver Matt Waters and sophomore linebacker Tim Edmond -- who enrolled in time for spring practice. Branz and Wells look like they'll be part of the rotation on the ends.
The Bobcats hit Florida to find three of their most impressive freshman recruits. Quarterback Greg Windham (6-1, 217) went by the nickname "Gunslinger" at Tampa's King High School and threw for 5,590 yards in his career. Wide receiver Chris Murray (5-10, 185) played with Windham and earned first-team all-state honors. The Ohio coaches thought Murray plays like LaVon Brazill.
Ohio also hit the in-state scene hard with tight end John Tanner (6-4, 240), offensive tackle Troy Watson (6-6, 280), defensive end Kurt Laseak (6-4, 225) and safety Sebastian Smith (6-2, 180). Smith, who caught a 75-yard touchdown pass in the 2011 state title game for Pickerington Central, committed originally to Indiana.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
With so many returning players and so much confidence in the younger classes, Ohio has made no small plans this year. With their season opener at Penn State (in what's sure to be an emotional day for the Paterno-less Nittany Lions), the Bobcats will find out right away how special they might become.
Ohio's path toward its first MAC championship in 44 years will be made easier if it can find game-breakers to replace Brazill and Harden. Considering last year's biggest question mark was Tettleton -- and he came through with flying colors -- the Bobcats ought to be able to find players who can fill Brazill's and Harden's roles.
BLUE RIBBON: MAC PREVIEWS
"Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook" previews the 2012 season for each MAC school. Take a look: