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Published: Thursday, 8/12/2004

Justin time? Tressel has yet to decide on starting QB

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - For the time being, the quarterback sweepstakes at Ohio State University is very much like the presidential race - officially a dead heat.

And for a while, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel probably prefers to keep it that way.

Ohio State needs to find a replacement for the steady and reliable Craig Krenzel, who graduated after leading the Buckeyes to a 24-3 record in his two seasons as a starter.

The two contenders for the high-profile job are sophomores Justin Zwick and Troy Smith.

The smart money has always been on Zwick, who at 6-4 and 225 pounds, blessed with a strong arm and a product of the football factory at Massillon Washington, seems to be destined to play quarterback for Ohio State.

Smith (6-1, 215) was recruited as an athlete from Glenville High School near Cleveland, and played only as a kick-returner and slash type back last season.

Tressel continues to play his preference for a starter very close to the vest, and seems to revel in the competition, which he hopes will produce not one but two capable quarterbacks. His Buckeyes are just one of the six Big Ten teams that have to replace quarterbacks this season.

"The development of the quarterback on a lot of teams is going to have a great deal to do with how the conference race develops,'' Tressel said.

"And even the teams that have their No. 1 back have to be concerned about who they have to back him up, and how much progress he has made since last season. There are always quarterback issues on every team."

Zwick was one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in Ohio State history, and is by all accounts bigger and stronger than he was while setting records at Massilon. The OSU staff has always marveled at his extremely quick release, accuracy and touch, besides the strength of his throwing arm. Smith can throw with power, and is an elusive scrambler who can turn broken plays into big plays.

While acknowledging that they bring different talents to the table, Tressel said their audition this month will be based primarily on the basics.

"There are certain things that they have to do, regardless of their individual strengths," Tressel said. "They have to make good decisions.

''There is 75 to 80 percent of the offensive package that they will both do, and the other 20 to 25 percent of it you will tinker with and kind of customize for the individual."

Zwick said his close personal friendship with Smith will not be damaged by the competition, which began in spring ball and resumed in earnest with yesterday's first practice, as all eyes look toward the season opener against Cincinnati on Sept. 4.

"This is going to be tough," Zwick said, "because you can't have two quarterbacks. In a lot of positions you can have a couple of guys play and come in and out and do different things, but at quarterback, if they make a decision and they go with one guy, then it's going to be tough for the other guy. We're going to push each other and help each other out as much as we can, and just have fun with it and make this team better."

Smith said he had other offers coming out of high school, and could have gone a number of places and been "The Man," but he chose Ohio State because it offered the biggest challenge.

"I will be humble in any and every way that I can throughout this, and good things will come to me and this football team," Smith said. "This is not about me or Justin. You have to sit back and think that what I wear on my chest is an Ohio State jersey, not a Troy Smith jersey. Ohio State is the team that I play for. I feel like I'm where I need to be - right in the thick of things, battling for the starting quarterback job at Ohio State."

Running back Maurice Hall said the rest of the Buckeyes will watch the quarterback race play out over the next few weeks, but put full confidence in either player to lead the Buckeyes when the season opens.

"I think we have a lot of confidence in both guys," Hall said. "They are both good quarterbacks and both of them can do great things for us; I think you really can't go wrong with either of them. We know both of them are probably going to play, and they need to depend on us to run the ball better than we did last year just to take some of the pressure off them, and that's what we're going to do."



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