Thursday, November 3, 2011

BUCKEYES SEASON CAN BE VIEWED AS THE 'YEAR OF THE YOUNGSTERS

(From L-R) Devin Smith and Braxton Miller
The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell
COLUMBUS — As we dive deeper into the college football season, it's become evident that the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes may be defined as the 'Year of the Youngsters.'

In recent years, college football programs have leaned harder on underclassmen thanks to the win-now attitudes of most programs. Ohio State is no different as the Buckeyes have expected big things from freshmen in the past — Maurice Clarett, Terrelle Pryor, Chris "Beanie" Wells and Mike Brewster come directly to mind. The impact and expectations of young players have become so important to programs across the country that recruiting classes are often judged as soon as fall camp breaks.

I remember attending the Buckeyes fall camp in August and coming away thinking how talented and diverse the 2011 class can be. Through eights games, a handful of freshman have stood out in a large, and in charge, type of way.

Quarterback Braxton Miller

An argument can be made that head coach Luke Fickell really dropped the ball in his handling of the freshman and senior Joe Bauserman. Both Miller and Bauserman came into the season with zero starting experience at the collegiate level — actually Bauserman hadn't started a game in eight years. Neither quarterback took charge of the job in fall camp, so Fickell decided to roll the dice with the former minor league pitcher.

We all know how that turned out.

Bauserman lit up Akron in the opener, looked pedestrian in a squeaker against Toledo and topped it off with an atrocious outing in Miami. And then the job was handed to Miller, who decided to run, juke and cut his way into a lot of Buckeye Nation's hearts over the past month. Miller will forever be known as the kid who beat the Wisconsin Badgers.

Miller, a much-heralded recruit from Huber Heights (OH), is completing 52.5 percent of his passes with 8 total TDs, 492 passing yards and 342 on the ground. It can also be argued that he's the offense's most valuable player up to this point.

Wide receiver Devin Smith

On the other end of the miracle toss that snagged victory from the Badgers was Smith, who's quickly becoming a favorite target for Miller.

Without Smith's emergence, the Buckeyes may not be where they currently are in the standings. The suspension of DeVier Posey put an added burden on an inexperience group of receivers. Corey "Philly" Brown has dealt with an ankle injury for most of the year and Ohio State lost starting wideout Verlon Reed to a torn ACL.

Smith, a three-star recruit from Massillon (OH), leads the Buckeyes with 227 yards receiving and 4 TDs. The Buckeyes' passing attack doesn't strike fear into any opponent, but thanks to Smith's playmaking ability, he's certainly proved his worth during an impressive freshman season.

It should be an entertaining next three years as Miller and Smith continue to grow before our eyes.

Linebacker Ryan Shazier

With the recruitment and signing of fellow true freshman linebacker Curtis Grant, Shazier sort of slipped under the radar as an immediate playmaker in 2011. I quickly nixed that idea after witnessing Shazier's unmatched speed and athleticism during fall camp. He had worked his way up to second-string linebacker in the preseason and he made a legitimate argument to start the opener against Akron.

Though he hasn't cracked the starting unit yet, Shazier has resembled a football-seeking missile on the field. Shazier, a four-star recruit from Plantation (FL), has mainly been a force on special teams and situational third-downs. In the opener, Shazier showed his burst on a weakside blitz to pick up his first collegiate sack. And in the Wisconsin win, Shazier again used his speed to block a punt deep in Badger territory.

And who picked up that fumble? Some freshman named (Curtis) Grant.

Head coach Luke Fickell

Ok, I'm cheating a bit. But it is his rookie year as head coach, and I've been vocal in that Fickell is the man for the job.

He was given a stacked deck from the beginning and has responded by keeping this roster focused and united. Fickell continues to preach togetherness and unity to a young and talented team.

The trials and tribulations of the 2011 Buckeyes will be well-documented. With the resignation/retirement of former coach Jim Tressel and the seemingly weekly suspensions of upperclassmen, these Buckeyes could have handed in their seasons.

The pathetic offensive showing in South Beach paired with a second-half meltdown in Lincoln would have derailed the majority of the country's powerhouse programs.

But one thing this team has shown is strength in one another. This team lacks the egos of past rosters.

I think that's a direct connection to the mission that Fickell has put forward.