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Published: Sunday, 8/24/2003

Defensive Gamble

BY RON MUSSELMAN
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Chris Gamble returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown in a 13-7 victory over Penn State last season. Chris Gamble returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown in a 13-7 victory over Penn State last season.
ZAPOTOSKY / BLADE Enlarge

COLUMBUS - Chris Gamble is that rare college football player who is a dangerous three-way threat. He can beat teams as a flanker, cornerback or return specialist.

But Gamble says he isn't going to break a sweat worrying about Ohio State coach Jim Tressel's decision to limit his playing time on offense, at least early in the season.

The second-ranked Buckeyes begin defense of their national championship Saturday night at home against No. 17 Washington.

“The weather's going to be hot early in the season and they're not going to want me to get too tired,” said Gamble, whose name surfaced late last week in connection with the NCAA's academic investigation of tailback Maurice Clarett. “I'll probably play mostly on defense the first month or so, with a little offense mixed in here and there.

“Once the weather gets cooler I'll probably get some more playing time at receiver - probably just like last year. I'll do whatever they want me to do, but I don't want to hurt the team.”

Gamble, 6-2 and a beefier 194 pounds, began last season as the starting flanker, but when chronic ankle problems forced senior cornerback Richard McNutt to the sideline after the first six games and freshman E.J. Underwood did not appear ready in the next two, Gamble started the final six games at both positions.

He was the first two-way starter for the Buckeyes since Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Warfield in 1963. And Gamble participated in more than 100 plays in each of the Buckeyes' last four games, including an off-the-charts 128 in an overtime victory at Illinois.

“Chris Gamble can do anything,” Tressel said. “He's just one of those special kids that if it were up to him, he would play every play on every unit.

“But it's in our program's best interests to use him where we need him the most. The season is a long haul and we have to be careful not to spend his energy level too early.”

Gamble, who enjoyed a two-way career at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was named co-MVP of last year's team, along with quarterback Craig Krenzel.

Gamble earned All-Big Ten first-team honors on defense after collecting a team-leading four interceptions. He was OSU's second-leading receiver with 31 catches for 499 yards, a 16.1 average.

And Gamble led the Buckeyes in kickoff return average (23.0), and averaged 8.4 yards per punt return.

“Chris made it look easy last year,” Krenzel said. “This season he's probably going to play defense all season long. Offensively, I don't know how we're going to handle it. You may not see as much of Chris early on while the weather is still warm.

“But I still expect him to catch 40-plus passes this year. And I think he'll return a few kicks for touchdowns because he's so quick, so explosive.

“If you get to know Chris and you understand exactly what he is doing - splitting offensive reps, defensive reps and everything on special teams - he's done some amazing things.”

Before the fourth game against Cincinnati last season, Gamble became part of the Buckeyes' secondary, with more potential than preparation.

“We gave him basic techniques within the coverage,” defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio said. “That's how he learned.”

Gamble's first interception came on his first play as a cornerback against the Bearcats - in the end zone, no less. He also deflected a pass in the corner of the end zone late in the game as Cincinnati was threatening to score the winning touchdown. Ohio State held on for a 23-19 win.

Gamble's second interception saved the game at Wisconsin, a 19-14 Buckeyes' victory. His third pick, which he returned 40 yards for a touchdown against Penn State, was the Buckeyes' only TD in a 13-7 win.

And his fourth interception at Purdue helped preserve a 10-6 victory.

“He just sort of became an impact player,” Dantonio said, in an understatement.

Gamble the cornerback looks strikingly similar to Gamble the flanker. That is, he plays both positions as if the quarterback is trying to throw the ball to him.

“I watch the quarterback's eyes and the receiver,” Gamble said. “I see the quarterback and the receiver at the same time.”

Gamble, a junior, is focused on becoming a top-notch cornerback, which is the position he'll likely play in the NFL.

“I know I'm going to be looked at as a cornerback now. I didn't really know the right techniques and stuff like that when I first started playing there. But after I started watching film and practicing there every day, it finally started to come to me. I feel like I'm a leader. I try to tell the secondary to step it up and go out there and have fun.

“I'm going to be more physical this year. I'm going to try to get up into the receivers and jam them at the line of scrimmage. I lifted weights in the off-season and tried to get stronger.”

“Last year I played most man-to-man defense and just relied on my skills. I want to be a more complete cornerback this year.”



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