Season preview: Unfinished business
Ohio seeking to win elusive MAC championship
By Lonnie McMillan / Contributor
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
ATHENS – Unfinished business.
The Ohio football team is coming off a monumental season in which it tied a school record with 10 victories and won a bowl game for the first time in school history. Yet it was not enough.
“We went to the MAC championship last year,” wide receiver Donte Foster said. “We ended up losing late in the game, so that still stings in our heart. We feel like we have unfinished business and our duty is to get back there and win that football game.”
Ohio led Northern Illinois, 20-0, at halftime of the MAC title game, but the Huskies rallied to top the Bobcats, 23-20, on a last-second field goal.
It was the second time in three years the third time in six years the Bobcats came up short in the championship game. They have not won the league title since 1968.
“That was devastating last year, the way that we lost that game,” tight end Jordan Thompson said. “To be up 20 and see it slip away, that’s definitely something that’s on your mind on a daily basis. Last year was a lot of fun, but that was one little point in there that wasn’t much fun. We’re definitely itching to get back there.”
It could have been easy to let that loss turn into another one a few weeks later in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, especially after falling behind, 23-10, late in the third quarter against Utah State. But the Bobcats rallied, getting the tying touchdown with 13 seconds left on a 1-yard run by Tyler Tettleton. Matt Weller’s extra point gave Ohio its first bowl game victory in school history.
To that point, the Bobcats were 0-9 in postseason games, including five bowl game defeats. Ohio hopes to carry the momentum of that victory into this season.
“It was a basket of mixed emotions, winning the MAC East, taking out Bowling Green in the last minute and then coming into the MAC championship, getting up, great, good feelings, and then just bottoming out really, really hard,” guard Eric Herman said. “Ending on a good point is really going to be a strong thing for our program. Beating Utah State was huge.”
With 15 starters back, the Bobcats believe this is the year they finally bring home that elusive MAC championship and they are not the only ones. They were a unanimous pick on media day to get back to the conference championship game and were the top choice to come out on top.
“We have a target on our back and we’re going to get everyone’s best effort every game,” kicker Matt Weller said. “It’s going to be a challenge.”
Ohio implemented a hurry-up, no-huddle offense in 2011 and had unprecedented success, breaking 47 records. It averaged 30.5 points and 445.8 yards per game.
However, the Bobcats took a hit from graduation offensively, losing five starters who contributed 2,803 yards of offense and 83 games on the offensive line.
But key is the return of quarterback Tyler Tettleton (6-0, 200), a redshirt junior who was a third-team All-MAC selection in 2011 during a breakout season. He shattered 12 records and finished with 3,302 passing yards and 28 touchdowns with only 10 interceptions. He added 658 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground.
“With Tyler coming back, it definitely helps to have him back,” Thompson said. “He’s proven that he can lead the offense.”
Redshirt freshman Derrius Vick (6-1, 205) is the team’s backup, with true freshman Greg Windham (6-1, 217) and J.D. Sprague (6-1, 190), a walk-on, are next on the depth chart.
Last year’s starting running back Donte Harden totaled 986 yards on the ground, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. This year, Beau Blankenship (5-9, 202) moves up to the top spot on the depth chart after starting last year as the team’s No. 3 running back in his first season after transferring Iowa State. Blankenship averaged 5.0 yards per carry and finished with 462 yards rushing.
“I run as hard as I can,” Blankenship said. “I try to accelerate when the hole is there and try to make cuts when I have to. I try to do the right thing to try to use my strength and my quickness that God’s given me just to make the most out of every play.”
Ohio has a proven backup in the powerful Ryan Boykin (6-1, 221), who ran for 435 yards in 2011, averaging 4.2 yards per carry. However, he has missed much of summer camp with a hamstring injury and redshirt freshman Kyle Hammonds (5-8, 180) also has missed practices due to turf toe. That could allow true freshman Daz’mond Patterson (5-6, 178) to get some carries while also contributing on special teams.
The Bobcats lost three of their top four receivers to graduation, including all-time leading receiver LaVon Brazill. Also gone are Riley Dunlop, Phil Bates and Jerry Gross.
The lone returning starting wide receiver is junior Donte Foster (6-1, 193), who made 30 receptions for 352 yards and five touchdowns last season. He said is ready to step up and become a go-to player, both on and off the field.
“In my second year starting, I feel like I’m due to lead these receivers throughout the season and teach them the ropes and everything,” Foster said. “As fall camp has been happening, I like the way the receivers are looking. We’ve really been stepping up, catching more passes, blocking better. I feel like we have a good chance of being good as receivers.”
Senior Tyler Futrell (6-0, 179) and junior Mario Dovell (6-0, 200) were expected to start alongside Foster. Futrell had only six catches for 90 yards, while Dovell had eight receptions for 151 yards in 2011.
Dovell, though, struggled through some injuries in camp and is not listed on the first week’s depth chart. Instead, sophomore Chase Cochran (6-2, 182) is penciled in to start despite playing in only four games last year without making any catches.
Senior Bakari Bussey (6-2, 205), junior college transfer Matt Waters (6-0, 223) and sophomore Landon Smith (5-11, 180) will serve as backups. Bussey had 11 grabs for 112 yards as a junior and Smith had trhee catches for 24 yards as a true freshman. Senior Ryan Clark (5-9, 169) has made the switch from cornerback to wide receiver.
Ohio seems stacked at tight end, with Thompson (6-4, 248) leading the way in his fourth year as a starter. He caught 24 passes for 258 yards and two touchdowns in 2011.
Sophomore Derek Roback (6-3, 249) made six catches for 56 yards in his first season at Ohio after transferring from Notre Dame. Junior Troy Hill (6-5, 210) missed all of last season with an injury but is listed along with Roback as Thompson’s backup this year. Junior Tyler Knight (6-5, 250) made one catch for 14 yards in four games but also had injury problems last season.
The offensive line lost a pair of All-MAC selections in Joe Flading and A.J. Strum, but even so, it ranks as one of the more experienced group of blockers in the nation with 96 career starts.
Leading the way is fourth-year starting right guard Eric Herman (6-4, 319). Senior center Skyler Allen (6-3, 288) has made 26 career starts, while senior Vince Carlotta (6-4, 289) and junior Jon Lechner (6-5, 332) will share time at left guard where they have a combined 29 starts.
New starters on the line are junior Ryan McGrath (6-6, 304) at right tackle and junior John Prior (6-6, 301) at left tackle. McGrath has seen action in 26 games in his career with three starts, while Prior played in 13 games last years after transferring from Florida State.
Lechner will play a versatile role on the line this year, backing up at left tackle as well as left guard. After that, senior center J.D. Bales (6-5, 307) is the most experienced second-string lineman with 11 career games over two seasons.
“We’re a whole bunch of different characters,” Herman said. “Our mentalities on the field are all different. But we have definitely brought more quickness to the line and we’re always going to be physical no matter what. That’s how we’re coached and that’s how we’re going to play on the field.”
Other backups, both with some experience last year, are sophomore right tackle Bryce Dietz (6-5, 290) and sophomore right guard Sam Johnson (6-3, 316). Redshirt freshman left tackle Mike McQueen (6-5, 305) also is listed on the depth chart, while redshirt freshman center Lucas Powell (6-3, 284) and junior right guard Mike Lucas (6-4, 340) also could see action.
The 2011 season was an injury-plagued one for the Ohio defensive line, but the positive in that is the Bobcats have fine returning players with starting experience.
The defensive line is led by senior Tremayne Scott (6-3, 257), who was fourth on the team last year in tackles with 62. He tied for the team leads in both tackles for loss (8) and sacks (3.5).
Joining him on the other end is senior Corey Hasting (6-1, 261), who saw most of his action last year as a defensive tackle. He finished with 48 tackles, including six for loss and 3.5 sacks.
A key returnee as the anchor of the defensive line is senior Neal Huynh (6-4, 315). He injured his knee after a huge start to last year and was able to come back at the end of the season, but was not as effective. He finished with 32 tackles, including four for loss.
“I had a lot of high expectations of myself,” Huynh said. “I thought I was doing really well my first four games and that knee injury I suffered in the fifth was really unfortunate and something I had to deal with health-with. Right after I got hurt, I just kept weight off of it, iced and rehabilitated it and I was able to get back at the end of the season, but I was very able to get back to where I was.
Senior Carl Jones (6-0, 245) is starting for the second consecutive year after registering 22 tackles, including three for loss, despite missing two games in 2011.
Nic Barber (6-3, 219) was in competition with Hasting to start at defensive end, but a shoulder injury has kept him out of practice recently and he is not listed on the opening week depth chart. He had 18 tackles, including four for loss last year.
Junior college transfer Ty Branz (6-2, 250), junior Kendrick Davis (6-3, 280) and true freshman Kurt Laseak (6-4, 225) are listed as the backups at defensive end.
With Hasting starting at defensive end, sophomore Antwan Crutcher (6-1, 300) is the top defensive tackle backup. He had nine tackles in his first game as a freshman after injuries forced him into action. Sophomore Tony Davis (6-4, 275) and redshirt freshmen Brandon Purdum (6-3, 255) and Justin Haser (6-5, 260) also could see action in the middle of the defensive line.
“It’s really going to come down to us setting the tone for every game,” Huynh said. “We’re going to have to come out every gone and play really physical football. It’s going to be attack, attack, attack.”
One major void on defense is at middle linebacker, where Noah Keller started for three years, totaling 438 tackles in his career, including 116 last year.
Junior Keith Moore (6-0, 219) has been tabbed to take over Keller’s spot.
“We really like the talent we have at MIKE backer,” Solich said. “Keith Moore right now is our starting MIKE backer. He’s got great speed for a linebacker. He’s a smart linebacker and he’s physical. He has toughness and he’s a guy that can really play any of the linebacker spots. I think we’re going to have a very, very good player at the MIKE backer spot.”
Moore had 35 tackles last season, including 10 against Miami when he was named MAC East Defensive Player of the Week after filled in practically the entire game after Keller suffered an early injury.
Redshirt freshman Ben Russell (6-1, 235) is set to back up Moore, while sophomore Joe Stefanski (6-2, 236) and sophomore transfer Tim Edmond (5-11, 240), who originally was recruited out of high school by Ohio as a fullback, will offer depth in the middle.
Both starting outside linebackers return, with senior Jelani Woseley (6-2, 205) on the weak side and senior Alphonso Lewis (6-1, 206) on the strong side. Woseley had 53 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2011, while Lewis finished with 64 tackles.
Sophomore AJ Grady (6-1, 198) is listed as the primary backup at the SAM spot, while Lewis is listed as the backup at the WILL position. Converted safety sophomore Brandon Atwell (6-2, 212) also is expected to get some action as an outside linebacker.
At the end of last season, it seemed like the entire starting secondary for Ohio would be back this year, but that has not played out. Both projected starting cornerbacks are out for the season and the Bobcats will be down a safety for the opener.
An injury and academic issue forced cornerback Omar Leftwich out of the program this spring with a year of eligibility remaining, while senior Travis Carrie, projected to have NFL potential, will sit out because of a shoulder injury and hopes to get a medical redshirt for one more year with the Bobcats.
In addition, junior strong safety Xavier Hughes (6-1, 171) likely will miss some time because of an off-the-field issue. Solich has not said how long he might be held out. Hughes was the starter at the beginning of last year, intercepting three passes before a season-ending injury.
As such, senior free safety Gerald Moore (6-1, 205) is the only of the originally projected starts slated to be on the field against Penn State, and even he has missed summer practices with an ankle injury. Moore was second on the team with 84 tackles last year and picked off two passes.
As he did last year, sophomore Josh Kristoff (6-0, 194) will fill in as the starter for Hughes at strong safety. He made 52 tackles as a redshirt freshman.
Sophomore Thad Ingol (5-10, 190) and redshirt freshman Devin Jones (6-0, 210) are listed as the backup safeties.
Junior Jamil Shaw (6-0, 195) has earned one of the starting cornerback positions, but much playing time is still up for grabs behind him. Shaw had 18 tackles as a sophomore.
Sophomores Ian Wells (5-11, 192) and Larenzo Fisher (5-11, 170) both saw action as true freshmen and are listed as possible starters at the other cornerback spot. Fisher saw more playing time than Wells in 2011.
Backups include redshirt freshman Devin Bass (5-9, 178) and senior Octavius Leftiwch (6-1, 190).
Sophomore Nathan Carpenter (5-9, 197) and senior Mose Denton (6-1, 200) will see time on the field in nickel situations. Carpenter made 53 tackles, defended 11 passes and had two interceptions in his first season on the field. Denton had 14 tackles.
“They always say defense wins championships,” Moore said. “That’s something I’ve always believed in. At the highest level, I’ve never won a championship, but winning the bowl game definitely showcased that you have to make stops, you have to create turnovers. Defense is definitely going to be key this year in what we do.”
The Bobcats lost two of their primary starters on special teams, including punter Paul Hershey.
The only returnee is senior kicker Matt Weller (6-0, 225). He made a school record 25 field goals in 34 attempts 2011 with a long of 49 yards. He is 57 of 77 in his career and has connected from as deep as 52 yards. He also will handle kickoff duties.
“I’ve probably had the most active offseason that I’ve had,” Weller said. “I’ve been able to be healthy the whole spring. I’ve got a lot more goals that I’d like to accomplish. I’ve had a lot of misses that I would like to take back, but I’ve learned from them and hopefully this is the year I can put it all together and have the best season yet.”
Freshman Grant Venahm (6-3, 210) and sophomore Matt Ringle (6-1, 225) have battled all summer to be the starting punter, while redshirt freshman Miles Chapman (5-10, 165) has earned the starting long snapper spot.
Waters is set to be the holder. Clark is tabbed as the top option on both kickoff and punt returns. He averaged 22.6 yards per kick return in 2011, with a long of 60 yards. Bass and Futrell show up on the depth chart as other options.
Although Ohio enters its opener at Penn State as a slight underdog, it believes all of its games are winnable. The MAC championship is the top goal this year, but the Bobcats are not necessarily stopping there.
“I feel like this team really wants to go undefeated and we have a really good chance to do so,” Foster said. “If we can win 14 games, we’d have no problem with that whatsoever, but we also want to go back to a MAC championship and we want to win the MAC championship and also go to a bowl game and win another bowl game.”
The Bobcats begin their season’s quest at 12 p.m. Saturday at Happy Valley.