Ohio State has produced its share of top-flight wide receivers over the years -- NFL stars Cris Carter, Joey Galloway, David Boston and Terry Glenn played there. But the Buckeyes are still best known for their five Heisman Trophy-winning running backs: two-time winner Archie Griffin, Eddie George, Les Horvath, Vic Janowicz and Howard "Hopalong" Cassady.
So indeed it would be a big surprise if the Buckeyes opened their Sept. 10 showdown against No. 2 Texas at Ohio Stadium in a spread formation offense, with an empty backfield and wideouts covering the field. But who could blame Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel for wanting to get all he can out of wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Santonio Holmes? Rarely have the Buckeyes, or any college football team for that matter, had two players as explosive and athletically gifted as their star wideouts.
Holmes, a junior from Belle Glade, Fla., led the Buckeyes in receiving last year and averaged a team-best 17.2 yards per catch as a freshman in 2002. Ginn, a sophomore from Cleveland, might be college football's fastest player and tied an NCAA record by scoring touchdowns on four punt returns last season. Together, they could change the way football is played in the Big Ten, where mammoth offensive lines and powerful running games still seem to be the norm.
"We better go into a game wanting to get Teddy and Santonio the ball," Tressel said.
Ginn started his freshman season as a defensive back after he was named the national high school defensive player of the year in 2003. But after Ohio State lost its first three conference games for the first time since 1988, Ginn moved to offense to inject some big-play ability into the Buckeyes' sluggish attack. In losses to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Iowa, Ohio State had only 223 rushing yards and 47 points combined. That changed when Ginn became comfortable on offense: He scored three touchdowns in a 32-19 win at Michigan State on a 58-yard reception, a 17-yard run off a reverse and a 60-yard punt return.
Ginn, who is regarded as an Olympic hopeful in the 110-yard high hurdles, scored eight touchdowns on only 59 touches last season. In a 33-7 blowout of Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl, Ginn even took seven snaps at quarterback late in the game. Tressel said Ginn could return kickoffs and play cornerback at times this season.
"Offensively, his evolution in touches increased as the year went on," Tressel said. "Sometimes you get excited because he can do so many things. We are excited as anyone to get the ball in Teddy's hands."
Holmes, a cousin of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, is a more polished receiver than Ginn. Holmes had 55 catches for 769 yards and seven touchdowns last season, despite being double-teamed until Ginn emerged as a big-play threat late in the season. With Ginn lining up on the opposite side of the field this season, Holmes figures to see only single coverage most of the time this year.
"We think Santonio Holmes is a great player," Tressel said. "Early last year, he was about the only guy that was making plays for us. The people we played against saw that and put more attention on him. Some of our young guys then got a little more involved and that eased the burden off Santonio a little bit. If we can get to the point where we can recognize that he is being singled, we need to go to Santonio Holmes, because from a receiver standpoint he's top-notch."
Ohio State's biggest concern remains at quarterback. Junior Justin Zwick struggled as a redshirt sophomore last season, throwing six touchdown passes and six interceptions. He was replaced as the starter at midseason by Troy Smith, also a redshirt junior, who led the Buckeyes to a 4-1 finish in the regular season, including a 37-21 drubbing of Michigan. Smith had 386 yards total offense against the Wolverines. But then Smith was suspended from playing in the Alamo Bowl for taking improper benefits from a Ohio State booster. He also must sit out the season opener at Miami, Ohio on Sept. 3, and Tressel held Smith out of preseason practices as punishment for skipping class to work as a counselor at a youth football camp during the summer.
Zwick sprained his left ankle during preseason camp, so redshirt freshman Todd Boeckman was taking most of the snaps with the first-team offense. Zwick is expected to be ready for the opener.
"Our offense is hard to stop," senior safety Nate Salley said. "You can definitely tell a difference from last year."