Ohio University Is Prepared to Take Next Step
By RICK THORP
ATHENS — After years of being the bridesmaid, Ohio is ready to be the bride.
The Bobcats have appeared in the Mid-American Conference title game four times since 2006 and have come away from Ford Field empty handed each time.
Frank Solich, entering his 13th season in Athens, believes this could be the year his program gets over the hump.
”We have a lot of good leaders in our program,” Solich said last month at MAC Media Day at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton. ”I really like the way the players worked this summer, so that’s very encouraging to a coach.
”I’m really looking forward to getting going.”
Ohio returns 17 starters and 39 letterwinners from a squad that finished 8-6 overall and 6-2 in conference play. The Bobcats accepted a bid to the Dollar General Bowl, but fell to Troy, 28-23.
It was Ohio’s seventh bowl appearance in eight seasons, a record of achievement not many thought was possible when Solich arrived in 2005.
After spending six solid years at Nebraska that included three straight double-digit-win campaigns and triumphs in the Fiesta and Alamo bowls, Solich moved to the MAC, hoping to resurrect a program that hadn’t been to a bowl since the 1960s.
Following a 4-7 season in his first year, the Bobcats reeled off .500 marks or better in 11 of his next 12, cementing Solich as the third-winning coach in program history behind only Don Peden and Bill Hess. Ohio has been bowl eligible the past eight years, the longest streak in the MAC.
And speaking of streaks, Solich’s tenure at Ohio is one of the best in the nation. In this day and age of mostly short stints by FBS bosses, Solich has settled in nicely with the Bobcats. His tenure is only eclipsed by Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz and TCU’s Gary Patterson.
And, not only has Solich’s ability to remain in one place been marveled at, so has his staff’s. Ohio is the only team in the nation that has kept its head coach, offensive coordinator (Tim Albin) and defensive coordinator (Jimmy Burrow) in place for the past 10 years.
With so much stability, and so much returning talent, all signs point to this being another successful season in Athens.
”Last year was a little tease,” running back A.J. Ouellette said in Canton. ”We’re just chompin’ at the bit and ready to go.”
Ouellette figures to anchor a backfield corps hoping to regain its footing following an injury-plagued 2016. The junior returns after getting injured in last year’s opener.
”He’s a tremendous person to begin with,” Solich said, ”but what a great football player. If his foot can hold up, we see him having a great year.”
With Ouellette, who rushed for 687 yards in 2015 and a second-best freshman mark of 785 in 2014, out last year, and numerous other injuries to the unit, many players got touches. Ouellette said that will only benefit the group in ’17.
”You can learn a lot in practice,” he said, ”but there’s nothing like getting out on the field.
”I feel anyone can step in there right now.”
Senior Dorian Brown returns after rushing for 868 yards last fall, as does Papi White, who also doubled as a receiver, hauling in 41 catches for 672 yards and six touchdowns.
The Bobcats haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Beau Blankenship (1,604) in 2012. Martins Ferry’s Chad Brinker collected 1,099 in 2002.
”Our confidence is probably higher than it’s been the last three years,” Ouellette said. ”From what I’ve seen, we have a pretty experienced offensive line.”
It’s true. Three starters — senior Jake Pruehs (C), senior Durrell Wood (RG) and junior Joe Lowery (LT) –return. Pruehs, a member of the Outland Award watch list, and Woods started 14 games last year, while Lowery started 13.
Junior Joe Anderson and senior Jared McCray are eyeing the left guard and right tackle spots, respectively.
Quarterback appears to be in good hands with the return of Quinton Maxwell. As a freshman, Maxwell started six games, throwing for 1,247 yards and eight TDs.
Tony Mangen caught one of those from his tight end spot last fall. The senior and John Mackey Award candidate returns after hauling in 15 receptions for 142 yards.
Defensively, three of Ohio’s four secondary starters return — Javon Hagan (so., FS), Kylan Nelson (jr., SS) and London Miller (sr., CB).
Hagan was named MAC Freshman of the Year after recording 53 tackles and three picks.
”We were really young last year,” he said. ”(Randy) Stites was our only senior. We have a year of experience under our belts. I think we can make more plays this year and be more comfortable.”
Despite being only a sophomore, Hagan is eager to take on a leadership role.
”Every time out I want to push my guys to play to the best of their ability,” he said.
Ohio’s defensive line lost four of its top five tacklers from a year ago, including Tarrell Basham. Basham, the first Bobcat selected in the NFL Draft since 2014, is the reigning MAC’s Defensive Player of the Year after posting single-season (11.5) and career (31.5) sack marks a year ago.
”But, we have a number of defensive ends that we believe are talented,” Solich said. ”We’ll miss Basham, but we have four or five rush ends that have speed, quickness and toughness, so I think we’ll be strong there.”
Tony Porter returns at nose. He had 25 stops last season. Seniors Kevin Robbins and Trent Smart are other names looking to make an impact on the line.
Quentin Poling and Chad Moore, both seniors, are back at linebacker. They will help ease the loss of Blair Brown, who made 128 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
”It’s going to be hard to replace Blair,” Solich said, ”but we have some candidates that are going to be very good players.
”We should be a very good defensive team again. I expect that to be a strong point for us.
”Team speed will be a strength.”
Special teams have always been a Solich specialty, and the 2006 MAC Coach of the Year expects another solid season from that unit this fall.
”We were really good last year, and we need to have that be the case again this year,” he said. ”We have our punter back, our kicker back, our long snapper back … we have plenty of athletes ready to run down and make plays. So, special teams should be a strong suit for us.”
As a freshman, Louis Zervos, a first-team all-MAC pick scored 122 points after going 29 of 35 on field goals and 35 of 38 on extra points. His 29 FGs set the NCAA mark for a freshman.
”He means a great deal to us,” Solich said of Zervos, who’s been placed on the Lou Groza Award watchlist. ”He had a big year last year.”
Punter Michael Farkas boasted a 40.8 average while pinning 30 of his 71 boots inside the 20. Jake Hale is the long snapper.
Sept. 2:Hampton 7 p.m.
Sept. 8: at Purdue 8 p.m.
Sept. 16: Kansas 2 p.m.
Sept. 23: at Eastern Michigan TBA
Sept. 30: at UMass TBA
Oct. 7: Central Michigan TBA
Oct. 14: at Bowling Green 3:30 p.m.
Oct. 21: Kent State TBA
Oct. 31: Miami of Ohio TBA
Nov. 8: Toledo TBA
Nov. 14: at Akron TBA
Nov. 24: at Buffalo TBA
Win 10, Lose 2