COLUMBUS, Ohio – While Jim Tressel's NCAA violations hang like a specter over his program, the Buckeyes begin spring practice faced with a number of other key questions.
"It's going to be a little bit different team," Tressel said in an understatement on Wednesday, addressing the on-the-field product after apologizing for what he termed his "mistakes" off it. "There are some folks who have played a lot of football who aren't here anymore. There is a tremendous amount of leadership that isn't here anymore. We're going to miss a whole bunch of guys, which gives a lot of opportunity for the next group."
Spring workouts began Thursday afternoon with Tressel, facing at least a five-game suspension to start the 2011 season, stalking the field with a whistle around his neck. The Buckeyes worked out indoors in shorts, shoulder pads, jerseys and their spiffy new camo-print helmets.
The Buckeyes, who went 12-1 last year, have been hit heavily by graduation, and also by suspensions — with five standouts including starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor suspended for the first five games for accepting improper benefits. Pryor would have missed spring workouts regardless, after surgery on his right ankle in January. He was finally out of the protective boot he's been wearing.
Pryor was standing behind the offense during the workout, shouting encouragement. At one point, he was explaining a play to highly touted freshman quarterback Braxton Miller.
All of the others who will sit out the first five games are taking an active part this spring, including wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive lineman Mike Adams, tailback Dan Herron and defensive lineman Solomon Thomas. Tressel extravagantly praised their work ethic and their leadership during winter workouts.
Among the graduated seniors are front-line defensive players such as backs Chimdi Chekwa, Jermale Hines and Devon Torrence, linebackers Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, linemen Cameron Heyward and Dexter Larimore and, on offense, linemen Justin Boren and Bryant Browning, tailback Brandon Saine and wide receiver and team MVP Dane Sanzenbacher.
All the suspensions — including Tressel's for not disclosing that he knew about the five players' relationship with a Columbus tattoo-parlor owner — and the other losses have created a lot of uncertainty.
"To me this is a much more exciting spring when you're not sure what exactly you're going to have when they walk out there," assistant head coach Luke Fickell said. Fickell received that title earlier this week and will be interim head coach during Tressel's suspension on the five game days this autumn. Fickell will continue to coach linebackers and also serve as co-coordinator on defense along with Jim Heacock.
The biggest question of the spring is who will get the most snaps at quarterback?
Without Pryor — a three-year starter unavailable due to injury, not to mention his suspension through Oct. 1 — someone must take over the reins. The candidates are last year's backup, Joe Bauserman, a fifth-year senior who has seen only sparse playing time; Kenny Guiton, a sophomore from Texas who can both run and throw; redshirt freshman Taylor Graham, a pocket quarterback in the mold of his father, former Buckeyes quarterback Kent Graham; and Miller, an acclaimed recruit from the Dayton area.
"It's going to be fun to watch," Tressel said. "I'm going to have as much fun watching as you guys are — as to who's going to step up and emerge."
Tressel is permitted, pending possible further NCAA sanctions, to coach throughout the spring, summer and fall — everything except actual game days.
He said because of a shortage of players at some positions, the annual spring game would more than likely end up being an offense vs. defense scrimmage. In the past, the Buckeyes have drafted teams and played a simulated game before a big crowd at Ohio Stadium.
In the workouts leading up to the April 23 scrimmage, the coaching staff will just try to just get a feel for what it has in the 15 spring practices.
"I don't know that we'll be able to stand there after the spring game and say, 'Hey, you know, here's the first team and here's the second team and here's the third team,'" Tressel said. "We've got to figure out what we can do in the spring."