by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Anyone heard any news about Ohio State? To paraphrase the Geico shill, “Do you live under a rock?”

The scandal at Columbus has already cost the Buckeyes their head coach and star quarterback, and all the dominoes still haven’t fallen. The NCAA is asking questions and uncovering serious violations in the program that will likely result in major sanctions. Assistant head coach Luke Fickell has stepped in to replace Jim Tressel to pilot Ohio State, but he’s probably just an interim fix. The Buckeye job is one of the top plums in college coaching, but word is no top tier coach will come on board until the NCAA infractions committee has finished its feeding frenzy. Fickell assumed the position, at least temporarily, and immediately denied any knowledge of compliance issues or NCAA violations (okay Luke, go with that). The 37-year-old has never been a college head coach before, and most observers don’t believe he’s long for the post. Given the depletion of available talent, Fickell doesn’t figure to deliver the victories necessary to get a long-term shot at the job. However, he’s the best that athletic director Gene Smith could do on such short notice. Who (other than Lane Kiffin) will be willing to walk into a program facing potentially crippling scholarship restrictions and a possibly lengthy bowl-ban without knowing the particulars?

With star QB Terrelle Pryor out of the picture and key offensive weapons Dan Herron (1155 YR, 16 rush TDs last season; first team all-Big Ten) and WR DeVier Posey (53 catches) both facing at least five-game bans, the outlook at Columbus might be described as bleak. Between graduation, suspensions and desertion, OSU loses its top six point producers and its top five tacklers from 2010 for at least the first five games. Pryor headed to the NFL supplemental draft rather than face more NCAA action concerning his alleged misdeeds. His spot will likely be taken by true frosh Braxton Miller, who was first-team all-Ohio as a prep and looked like a “mini-me” version of Pryor as an early-enrollee. Miller looked sharp in leading the Scarlet to victory in the spring game, impressing teammates and coaches alike despite being spoon-fed the offense in just 15 workouts and using a reduced playbook. Although redshirt frosh Taylor Graham, soph Kenny Guiton and fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman all threw for TDs in the spring game, it’s clear OSU’s future at QB lies with Miller, and that future will come sooner rather than later. However, Miller still has to learn the offense, and it’s a big jump from high school to a top college program.

Replacing Herron for the first five weeks of the season should be junior Jordan Hall, and redshirt frosh Rod Smith will undoubtedly get his feet wet early. Both showed they are capable in spring workouts. It’s less clear who will step into the go-to receiver role for Posey in the fall. Posey is the only returning wide receiver with any substantial experience. Soph “Philly” Brown played in every game last year (8 catches), but the most intriguing potential playmaker is probably 6-5 redshirt frosh T.Y. Williams. The offensive line lost both starting guards to graduation and first team all-Big Ten tackle Mike Adams won’t play until the Oct. 8 trip to Nebraska (if then). Tight end is set with Jake Stoneburner (21 catches last season) and Reid Fragel (6-8, 260), who shared starting duties last year.

The Buckeye defense must be re-tooled, as five starters were chosen in the NFL draft in April. All five were first team all-Big Ten players in 2010, forming the bulwark of a unit that ranked fourth in the nation and led the conference in nearly every category. Returning starting LB Andrew Sweat looked like a new team leader in recording 10 tackles in the spring game, and soph LB Jordan Whiting showed he’s ready to step in and nail down a starting job, but DE Nathan Williams and DT John Simon must step up their game a few notches. S Orhian Johnson, a part time starter last year, is the top returning tackler with 50, but youth at cornerback likely portends a downturn in OSU’s ability to defend the pass. Indeed, there are a number of holes to fill, especially on the defensive line, where DE Cameron Heyward (31st pick in the draft) was a disruptive force who commanded almost constant double-teams. In the spring game, the defense had trouble getting pressure on mobile QBs Miller & Guiton, getting most of its sacks against the much less-mobile Joe Bauserman.

Summary: Ohio State’s soft early schedule will probably get the Buckeyes 3 or 4 wins before regaining the services of Herron and Posey Oct. 8 at Nebraska. However, as the schedule gets more difficult, Fickell’s preparation and play-calling skills will be seriously tested in Big Ten play. The likely scenario is that the NCAA will take the Buckeyes out of the bowl picture in August, and their run of six straight Big Ten titles will end in November.

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