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QB not the only question facing Fickell, Buckeyes

The Associated Press

COLUMBUS — Swirling around the 2011 Ohio State Buckeyes are more questions than one would hear in a typical day at the BMV and all the kindergarten classes in Columbus combined.

The answers, however, will likely be far more complex.

A lot of points surrounding No. 18 Ohio State’s tattoo scandal, NCAA investigations and the looming penalties have already been hashed and rehashed over the past nine months. Still, it’s difficult to keep any lingering questions separate from the action on the field.

So strap on your thinking cap and then your Riddell. It could be a bumpy ride.

1) Who’s the quarterback?

The last two years, that hasn’t been a question; It was Terrelle Pryor. But Pryor, caught up in the eye of the NCAA hurricane, abandoned the college life to try to make it in the NFL. He was taken in the third round of Monday’s supplemental draft by the Oakland Raiders. Few Buckeyes fans are mourning his departure … now, at least.

He left behind a crowded field of potential successors. Virtually unknown, one is old, one is young, all have varying talents. But no one’s too sure about how any will perform on Saturdays.

It appears that Luke Fickell, who took over as interim coach when Jim Tressel resigned under fire in May, favors the youngest and the oldest of the contenders.

The greenest QB in scarlet and gray is Braxton Miller, an acclaimed recruit from suburban Dayton, Ohio. He graduated from Huber Heights’ Wayne High School a few months early so he could enroll in January. He’s learning the playbook four plays per day, but it’s a daunting task. The coaches like what he’s shown so far while recognizing he still has miles to go.

Joe Bauserman was a fourth-round draft pick in the 2004 amateur baseball draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates and spent three seasons in their organization as a pitcher. Now he’s on in long relief for the Buckeyes as a 25-year-old who knows the offense and can do a little bit of throwing and a little bit of running. He’s spent the last two years standing on the sidelines with a clipboard.

The other two candidates — tall, pocket-style passer Taylor Graham and the guy who arguably had the best spring, Kenny Guiton — have apparently fallen out of the top-two rotation.

Fickell, assured of only one year as head coach, says he won’t make any decisions based on his “interim” title. Still, going with Bauserman requires him to do less schooling and preparation with the triggerman of his attack. Throwing Miller into the mix offers a challenge to the youngster and the coaching staff — although it also gives pause to opposing defensive coordinators who could be faced with a young game-breaker who will be learning on the fly.

Odds are, Bauserman takes the first snaps in the first four games. After that, it could be Miller who starts when the Buckeyes begin Big Ten play on Oct. 1 vs. Michigan State.

2) What about the defense?

Losing seven defensive starters would cripple a lot of teams. But Ohio State isn’t exactly like a lot of teams, particularly those in the not-so-deep Big Ten.

The line will be fine, with Nathan Williams, John Simon and Johnathan Hankins handling things in place of the graduated Cam Heyward. The potential for problems looms elsewhere, since Ross Homan and Brian Rolle ran out of eligibility at LB and much of the secondary is gone with the departure of cornerbacks Chimdi Chekwa and Devon Torrence along with safety Jermale Hines.

Andrew Sweat, Storm Klein and Etienne Sabino have the inside track at playing time at linebacker, although Sabino broke a bone in his hand and is iffy for the opener Sept. 3 against Akron. Prized rookie Curtis Grant may sneak into the picture as well.

In the backfield, Tyler Moeller returns after missing most of the past two seasons due to injury. He’ll play the hybrid linebacker/DB spot in passing situations. Travis Howard and Florida State transfer Dionte Allen have impressed many and they’ll likely see a lot of action at cornerback along with Dominic Clark. Joining holdover Orhian Johnson at safety is C.J. Barnett, who started at the beginning of the 2010 season before a knee injury.

All in all, there’s talent but thin spots at LB and throughout the secondary.

3) How much will the Buckeyes miss the suspended players?

A lot. DeVier Posey is clearly the best receiver on the roster. Tailback Dan Herron was the leading rusher a year ago. Mike Adams had the solid year that was long expected of him at left tackle last season. Solomon Thomas, a backup defensive lineman, made the play of the game that saved a win against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl — a victory that Ohio State officials later vacated because Tressel had played players that he had reason to believe would be ineligible for accepting improper benefits. Posey, Herron, Adams and Thomas will sit out the first five games for accepting cash and tattoos from a local businessman who pled guilty to federal charges of drug trafficking and money laundering. By the time they return, Ohio State’s season could be decided. (Another player, backup LB Jordan Whiting, will sit out only the first game.)

Should the Buckeyes get through those first five games in good shape — say, 4-1 or better — the subsequent influx of experience and talent will make them a lot better.

But if things go south before Oct. 8, it could be a long season.

4) OK, so Herron’s out for five games. Who’ll take his spot?

The Buckeyes appear to have a stable of good running backs waiting in the wings. Jordan Hall, Jaamal Berry and Rod Smith provide speed, cutting ability and excitement to an offense that is severely lacking in all three areas.

Also, they seem to complement each other. Hall is small (just 5-9), but quick. Berry is strong enough to run inside and fast enough to get around the corner. Smith (6-3, 230) is more of a big back.

Bottom line: No need to worry here.

5) How will the players be affected by the NCAA’s impending ruling on sanctions?

Kids are kids. They’ll play football pretty much the same way when ranked No. 1 as they would at No. 120, whether first team or scout team.

There’s no question that some will keep an eye on their cell phones for word when the NCAA eventually hands down its ruling on Ohio State’s penalties — which could come as soon as the end of September or as late as mid-November.

Whether Ohio State gets hit with another body blow — a bowl ban? recruiting limitations? a hefty fine? — probably won’t have much of an effect on the Buckeyes up to that point. Now, if they’re 7-1 when the word comes out that they’ll be watching the bowl games on TV, that’s another matter.

Moreso than in any of Ohio State’s 121 previous seasons playing intercollegiate football, there are some questions this season that just defy an answer before everything plays out.