Fickell uncertain what he faces this fall
By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
COLUMBUS — With the dark clouds of an NCAA investigation and impending player suspensions hovering over the program, Ohio State interim coach Luke Fickell doesn’t know exactly what he’ll have to work with this fall.
All he knows is there are difficult times ahead.
“It’s a daily grind,” he said earlier this week in his first solo public appearance as the interim. “We’re not going to worry about the hypotheticals. We will attack those situations as they arise.”
Jim Tressel’s 10-year reign as coach ended when he was pressured to resign on May 30 due to a drip, drip, drip of alleged NCAA violations.
Tressel knew some of his players broke NCAA rules and, contrary to his contract and NCAA bylaws, did not report them to his superiors.
Five players were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season for trading signed memorabilia for cash and discounted tattoos.
One of those five, three-year starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, gave up his senior season last week while in the vortex of the NCAA probe. He has since hung his hopes on being taken in a possible supplemental NFL draft later this summer.
Ohio State has an Aug. 12 date with the NCAA’s committee on infractions. The NCAA could void the 2010 season and accompanying sixth straight Big Ten championship, hand down a postseason ban for one or more years, suspend more players and even restrict recruiting. It could also let the current sanctions stand.
While those issues are resolved, Fickell, who holds the Ohio State record with 50 consecutive starts as a nose tackle from 1993-96 under coach John Cooper, will have decisions to make on the field and in the locker room.
Others are watching closely.
“He’s a great guy,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “We played at the same time in the league. I have the utmost respect for him as a player. He was tough, physical, just a great player, and that’s the way his linebackers and his players have always played for him. He’ll do a great job.”
Perhaps the primary personnel matter facing Fickell, who is working on a two-year contract but only guaranteed one season as interim, is the situation at quarterback.
With Pryor gone, the Buckeyes are left with four candidates for the job. Two have seen scant action, two others have never played in a college game. Fifth-year senior Joe Bauserman, who turns 26 midway through the year, is vying with redshirt sophomore Kenny Guiton, redshirt freshman Taylor Graham and prized recruit Braxton Miller to take Pryor’s place.
Each threw a touchdown pass in the spring game. Tressel seemed to be leaning toward the youngest, Miller.
But now, the race is wide open.
“We’ve got four great guys. They’re going to be competitive,” Fickell said. “(We’ll) put them out there to give them their opportunities and see who can raise their level of competition and compete and who we can count on.”
Another minefield to be negotiated is recruiting — and keeping those you successfully recruit. Ejuan Price, a linebacker from the Pittsburgh area, has asked Ohio State to release him from the letter of intent he signed in February. The incoming recruits were scheduled to report on Sunday.
The elevation of Fickell (and Tressel’s departure) means there’s a hole on the coaching staff.
Fickell spent the past six years in charge of linebackers and as co-defensive coordinator. It appears that a defensive assistant will be hired, but roles and responsibilities may be shifted.
Fickell said he will work with both sides of the ball. But he’ll still let the offensive coaches call plays.
That wasn’t necessarily what fans wanted to hear. They have long been critical of what they deem an overly conservative attack under the direction of Tressel and nominal offensive coordinator Jim Bollman. “Tresselball” meant kicking field goals, playing field position and hoping the defense made stops to win.
“Coach Bollman has been our offensive coordinator here for 10 years now,” Fickell said. “I don’t see anything changing.”
Over the Tressel era, the Buckeyes followed their three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust roots and were mostly a rushing team. That’s another thing that won’t change, even though leading ground-gainer, Daniel “Boom” Herron, is one of the players suspended through the Oct. 1 Big Ten opener at home against Michigan State.
In his stead, Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry, Rod Smith and Carlos Hyde will divide up the carries.
Since the quarterbacks are largely unproven as passers, look for the Buckeyes to run and then run some more.
“If we have three tailbacks, maybe three tailbacks will be out there,” Fickell said. “We all know we’re going to play to our strengths. We’ll find out what those strengths are come fall camp.”
One of the biggest tasks facing the revised staff will be handling the roller-coaster emotions of the 100 or so on the team. All will be trying to make an impression and climb the depth chart. Some may start for the first five games and then find themselves standing on the sidelines while a suspended player gobbles up all their playing time.
It’s not an easy juggling act, keeping everyone motivated and happy while remembering that some of the most decorated players had a hand in bringing shame to the program. There will undoubtedly be some ill will in the locker room.
Fickell elected not to discuss that touchy situation.
“There are some things that we probably would keep internally,” he said. “That’s one of those things that inside a family we ask guys to have respect for one another and help each other out. That’s something within our family we’ll handle.”