With the first day of practice just two weeks away, the Ohio football team will soon be donning the helmets and shoulder pads in the August heat. After 29 full-squad practices in 20 days, the Bobcats begin their season at Pittsburgh on Aug. 31. Ohio will kick off its home schedule the following weekend with an 8 p.m. contest against Northeastern on Sept. 7.
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For a preview of the 2002 campaign, ohiobobcats.com turned to Derek Scott, radio play-by-play announcer for the Ohio Sports Network. Here is what “The Voice of the Bobcats” had to say about this year’s squad:
The Bobcats scored at least 24 points in five of their first six games and yet were 1-5 heading into Homecoming. By then, the team’s best player (Chad Brinker) had been lost for the season and quarterback Dontrell Jackson was losing his role as team leader. The disappointing season took its toll on the unit and they failed to move the football effectively the remainder of the season.
Once again, the coaches spent the spring season considering a move away from option football. However, that doesn’t mean fans should expect the Bobcats to suddenly become a team that throws the ball 30 times a game in 2002.
With a three-year returning starter back for his senior season, it might sound odd to classify the starting quarterback position as “up for grabs.” But that was indeed the case heading into spring ball.
Senior Dontrell Jackson suffered through an inconsistent junior year with his production dropping across the board. Most notably, the option signal-caller saw his yards-per-carry average drop from 5.6 as a sophomore to 3.3 in his third year. Never a strong passer, Jackson did improve his completion percentage in 2001 to 53% after spending his first two seasons hovering around the 45% mark. But his pass yards per game fell back under 60 after reaching 80 the year before. Injuries also plagued Jackson in the second half of the season.
Fred Ray, also a senior, stepped in to make his first career start against Kent State, one of three games in which he was the starting quarterback. Ray, in his first significant collegiate playing time, showed flashes of ability and clearly has a stronger throwing arm than Jackson. He is also bigger – at 6-2 and 193 pounds – giving him a better ability to find receivers from the pocket, but he is still learning the ins and outs of option football.
Ray and Jackson each earned opportunities to work with the first unit during spring drills. Jackson emerged from the competition as the starting quarterback but Ray will continue his pursuit in August.
Miami transfer Ryan Hawk will sit out the 2002 season but shows great potential and should make the scout team fun to watch throughout the year. He will have two years of eligibility remaining.
Will Chad Brinker be cleared to play and ready to go for the 2002 season? That is the burning question that begins any conversation of the Bobcat backfield. Brinker, a second-team All-MAC performer as a sophomore, was off to a great start last year when everything came to a screeching halt. As one of the halfbacks in Ohio’s triple-option attack, Brinker gained 393 yards on the ground through the first four contests. His 7.4 yards-per-carry average was among the best in the nation when he began complaining of severe headaches following the Toledo game on October 6.
A CT scan discovered what was causing those headaches, an arachnoid cyst that had to be removed via neurosurgery. Although the injury was not life-threatening, it obviously shut down Brinker for the remainder of the season and called into question whether or not he would ever be able to play football again.
Brinker was held out of contact drills this spring to allow more time for his skull to heal. No re-growth of the cyst is evident and the Ohio medical staff expects him to be cleared for action come August. A return to form for Brinker can make a huge difference in the ability of this offense to move the ball and score points. Ask any coach on the Ohio staff, “Who is the best football player on the team?” and you’ll likely get the same answer… Chad Brinker.
The fullback position is in good hands with the return of senior Joe Sherrill and sophomore Ray Huston. Although neither is an imposing physical specimen, each has shown the ability to gain yards between the tackles. They combined for 9 touchdowns a year ago.
With Brinker not available for full contact during the spring, Huston worked with the first unit at tailback. Dion Byrum was redshirted as a freshman and is expected to provide depth at tailback in 2002. Byrum rushed for nearly 2,000 yards as a senior at Monroe (N.C.) High School while catching 29 balls out of the backfield.
Justin Roush, a sophomore who rushed for 6,376 yards (fifth all-time in Ohio high school history) at nearby Meigs High School, also had an impressive spring and could earn some time in the backfield.
The Bobcats return more depth at the wide receiver positions than anywhere else on the field. The key is to make use of that experience. Senior Joe Mohler, who caught a team-best 21 passes a year ago, is expected to start for a third straight season. At 6-3, 200 pounds, Mohler provides a big target and, just as importantly in this offense, a good downfield blocker for the option attack.
Backing up Mohler will be Justin Halada, a pure possession receiver with the best hands on the team. If the Bobcats are to begin throwing the ball more often, Halada’s role could grow based on his reliability. Halada caught three balls for 53 yards during his sophomore season.
Jason Caesar, possibly the fastest Bobcat and one of the most versatile, will man the other receiver spot. Last year he lined up as a receiver at times, catching 13 balls for 120 yards. Due to injuries, he also spent some time at halfback late in the year, rushing 21 times for 89 yards. The 5-9, 161-pound senior also was Ohio’s top kick returner as a freshman and again last year.
Stafford Owens, who played at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill., with Dontrell Jackson and fellow receiver Brian Ingram (6-2, 194-pound junior), will share time with Caesar. Possessing great athletic ability, Owens showed glimpses of his potential during his freshman season. At Central Michigan, Owens rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on eight carries while hauling in a 27-yard touchdown pass as well. At 5-8, 182, Owens has the ability to make people miss in space and should only get better.
Ohio head coach Brian Knorr remarked early in spring practice that he thought the most difficult player to replace this year may be tight end Chris Knaack. Pound-for-pound the strongest player on the team, Knaack was a tremendous blocker who also managed to get downfield and make catches for big plays.
Senior Randy Pennington from Cleveland’s Orange High School hopes to finally be healthy after being hobbled much of the last two seasons. At 6-3, 250, Pennington has the best blend of size, strength, and mobility for the position. Junior Derek Gandy, at 6-3, 275, fills the role of second tight end for short-yardage blocking situations.
In a disappointing season, the Ohio offensive line was a rare bright spot in 2001. And although the starting interior three have all moved on, the cupboard is hardly bare. At center, Doug Wooten spent the last two seasons being listed as a backup but actually split the reps with Taylor Ketchum. The same scenario held at right guard where Brian Brown played nearly as much as Khalid Johnson last year. Brown is the strongest player on the team, a warrior in the weight room who exceeded all expectations as a sophomore. Those two should be fine as full-time starters.
Three tackles have rotated at two positions much of the last two seasons. This year, one of them moves inside to replace Nick Glowacki. Third-generation Bobcat Dennis Thompson worked at left guard this spring, his first time away from tackle since coming to Athens in the summer of 2000. Erik Grahovac started every game last year at right tackle and is expected to do the same as a senior. And Chris Jackson is expected to get the nod at left tackle in the fall. Jackson missed spring drills recovering from shoulder surgery. In his absence, redshirt freshman Shane Yates got most of the reps with the first unit. Junior Steve Lawrence works as hard as anyone in the trenches and is expected to provide depth at the guard position along with senior Eric Brown.
If this unit can develop some depth in August drills, line play should again be a strength for the Bobcats in 2002.
In the 2000 season, Ohio did not allow more than 29 points in a single game. Last season, the Bobcats yielded 29 points per game. Ranking near the bottom of the MAC in nearly every defensive statistic, Ohio struggled equally in trying to stop the run and the pass. Getting the Bobcat defense back to where it was in previous years (among the best in the league) falls under the responsibility of the man who led them there before. Tim DeRuyter returns to Athens as defensive coordinator, a position he held under former head coach Jim Grobe from 1995-98. DeRuyter spent spring practice implementing the “50” defensive scheme that his previous units were so successful with.
Ohio’s three-man front was a revolving door last year with injuries impacting the lineup throughout the season. Seven different players earned starts along the line in the 2001 season with three others seeing significant playing time at one point or another during the season. Defensive ends Mike Fox and Art Adams have moved on, leaving the leadership role in the hands of nose guard Lamar Martin (6-3, 286). The lone senior amongst the returnees, Martin led all down linemen in tackles last year with 29, four for loss. Providing competition and depth at the nose will be Eli Keiner, who proved to be something of a surprise last year after transferring from Glenville State. Keiner, a 6-0, 267-pound junior, led the Bobcats in sacks with three in only six games. The walk-on missed time with a variety of foot injuries last season but seems to be recovered from surgery that he underwent when the season ended.
At defensive end, Keith Adamson hopes for better health as a junior and a return to his freshman-season form. Last year, Adamson (6-3, 254) missed four games due to injury and never really found the groove that allowed him to lead Ohio in quarterback hurries as a frosh. On the other side, Kevin Carberry is listed as the favorite to start. Carberry was expected to redshirt last season before the Bobcats’ injury problems forced the 6-4, 253-pounder onto the field in late September. He needs to add some weight to his frame to become stronger against the run but the expectations for Carberry are big.
Andre Parker is versatile enough to line up at any of the three positions on the line. Parker (6-0, 280) just needs a little luck. He has already dealt with a broken hand prior to his freshman season, a knee injury that forced him to miss spring ball a year ago, and multiple injuries that forced him to miss a pair of games and limited his production in a number of others during his sophomore season. Most recently, Parker injured a knee during spring drills. Garrett Bush (6-4, 284) showed the potential to do some big things as a redshirt freshman before suffering a torn ACL in the final game of the season. He sat out spring practice to rehabilitate that knee injury and hopes to be ready in the fall. Bush was in on eight tackles against Toledo in his best game of the season.
Junior Chris Collins (6-5, 250) is also in the mix at end, having transferred in from San Diego Mesa College prior to the start of spring quarter.
The Bobcats suffered their heaviest losses at the linebacker position. The top three outside ‘backers and the top two inside LB’s have all moved on. Shawn Murphy and Matt Weikert were second and third, respectively, in tackles last season. And Tom Weilbacher, the leading tackler in 2000, was told that the neck injury that cost him nearly half of last season will not permit him to continue playing football. What this leaves Ohio with is something of a mystery.
When Weilbacher’s season ended prematurely last October, Demetri Taylor was thrust into the starting lineup at inside linebacker and received a trial by fire. Having played only two seasons of high school football, Taylor (6-4, 236) was never afforded the redshirt season coaches had initially hoped for. Injuries forced him onto the two-deep as a freshman and last season he made 49 tackles in 10 games, adding two sacks. In the spring, Taylor was dealt another bad break… a cardiac condition that forced him to sit out practice. Team doctors, however, do not think it is a long-term concern. For now, DeRuyter is counting on Taylor to make a successful switch to a starting outside linebacker position.
Juniors Hugh Grant (6-3, 214), who started the final game of the season last year at North Carolina State, and Willie Sherman (6-3, 237) are slated to back up Taylor.
On the other side, the Bobcats are hoping a couple of former defensive backs can provide speed and athletic ability to help out in pass coverage. Rob Stover (6-3, 201-pound sophomore) sat out last year after transferring from Ohio State. The Ohio coaches think Stover can be a big-play guy similar to Matt Weikert, who also moved from safety to OLB early in his career. Battling Stover is Charles Terry, a 6-3, 211-pound junior who played in six games for the Bobcats last season.
For now, Dennis Chukwuemeka and Ricky Cherry are splitting most of the work at one of the inside linebacker spots. Chukwuemeka (5-11, 232) missed four games due to injury last year and is still very green. The sophomore, however, is more experienced than Cherry (6-0, 226), who sat out his first season to concentrate on academics and was redshirted last year.
The other inside position looks to be Rich Constantine’s to lose. Constantine (5-9, 230) missed six games last season with a leg injury and was really never at full strength. Sophomore Pete Brately (6-0, 231), who played in every game at Ashland College as a true freshman before transferring to Ohio, is listed as Constantine’s backup.
The Bobcat secondary returns the team’s leading tackler from a year ago and Ohio’s best cover corner for the past two seasons. Bop White (6-0, 183) has started at corner since the day he stepped on campus and enters his senior season with 11 career interceptions and 27 passes broken up. Those 11 picks are the most of any active player in the MAC and among the top active totals in the nation. White’s tackle totals have gone up each season and he has to be considered an all-conference candidate.
On the other side, expect a battle for the starting berth between sophomore Chip Cox, senior Thomas Stephens, and sophomore Jonah Booker. Cox (6-0, 183) is a physical, hard-nosed player who earned two starts as a true freshman and was used a great deal as a blitzer, picking up a sack and two tackles for loss. Stephens (6-0, 170) is the most experienced of the bunch and made a number of big plays two seasons ago. He started three games last year.
Joe Sellers (5-10, 190) made the move in the spring from free safety to strong safety. He led the Bobcats in tackles as a junior with 109 and is a big hitter. Coaches hope that style of play makes him even more productive on the strong side. Lacking depth at the position, the Bobcats brought in Bo Lebherz from the junior college ranks. Lebherz (6-0, 192), a teammate of Chris Collins at San Diego Mesa College, enrolled last spring quarter and participated in spring drills.
Expected to take over at free safety is junior James Taylor, who moved from wide receiver to the secondary last spring. Taylor (6-0, 193) made three starts and 51 tackles but seemed to struggle at times with the transition. With the year’s experience and the switch to free safety, the coaches hope Taylor’s outstanding athletic ability will be better utilized in 2002. Sophomore Rashad Butler, who began the 2001 season at quarterback, and junior Ben Robey (5-11, 179), a former walk-on and local product, are set to backup Taylor. Butler (6-0, 193) played in six games with one start during his redshirt freshman season, making 12 tackles.
Kevin Kerr returns for his fourth season as the Bobcats’ place kicker. His next made field goal will give him Ohio’s career record with 29, a record he was expected to break during his junior season before he suffered through a late-season slump. Kerr missed his last four attempts, which left him at 7-12 for the year. Equipped with one of the strongest legs in college football, Kerr has four career field goals of over 50 yards. He will be working with a new holder, Adam Porter, for the first-time in his career this season. Dave Zastudil handled the chores flawlessly the past three seasons.
The Bobcats must replace the greatest punter in school (and possibly conference) history this fall. Dave Zastudil will most likely be kicking on Sundays in 2002, as he was a 4th-round draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens in April. The All-American led the MAC in punting four straight seasons and was a tremendous weapon for the Bobcats. Kerr will get first crack at the punting duties this season. If filling both roles proves to be too burdensome, redshirt freshman Matthew Miller may get a look.