COLUMBUS - In the second half of last season, Justin Zwick was as recognizable on the Ohio State sideline as Jim Tressel.
Zwick smiled about as often as the stoic Tressel, too.
It was understandable.
Zwick had been banished to the bench after injuring his shoulder in the sixth game and losing his starting quarterback job to Troy Smith.
A player whose future was once bright with promise, Zwick had become a full-fledged member of the clipboard-carrying brigade.
He was no longer calling the plays in the huddle, he was watching them develop from the sideline.
That's the ultimate slap in the face for an ego-heavy position like quarterback.
Yet, it was the reality of the situation.
And, with the Buckeyes' offense jelling and Smith seemingly locked in as the starter, Zwick's career as an Ohio State quarterback appeared to be finished faster than you could say Maurice Clarett.
The overwhelming consensus was that Zwick would hop on the first bus out of town and transfer to another school.
Zwick never made it to the Greyhound station to purchase his one-way ticket.
In December, just before the Buckeyes' Alamo Bowl game with Oklahoma State, Smith added more drama to Ohio State's already muddied quarterback situation.
Smith fumbled away his starting job after accepting money from a booster and received a two-game suspension. He sat out the Alamo Bowl and also will miss this year's Sept. 3 opener against Miami (Ohio).
Zwick, all but given up for dead, is trying to make the most of his unexpected second chance.
For the time being, the offense is back in his hands, just as it was at the beginning of last season when he beat out Smith; and just as it was in the Alamo Bowl, when he led the Buckeyes to a 33-7 victory after replacing the suspended Smith.
Let's get something straight.
Zwick, 4-3 as a starter last year, isn't nearly as mobile as Smith, and doesn't have Smith's big-play, game-breaking abilities.
The NCAA has told Tressel that Smith will be reinstated after the opener against Miami, so long as he repays the money he took from a booster last spring.
Smith said yesterday he plans to gradually pay back the money.
"If it was that easy, it would be taken care of now," he said.
Smith's targeted return is set for Sept. 10 when the Buckeyes play highly touted Texas, which features a dynamic scrambling quarterback of its own in Vince Young.
Smith's return figured to put Tressel in quite a quarterback quandary, but position coach Joe Daniels helped quiet some of those concerns yesterday.
Asked who would start under center against the Longhorns, Daniels didn't hesitate.
"Smith would play," Daniels said. "Now, would he start? Probably. I don't know that for sure now. I'm going to wait and answer that question a lot closer to the second game."
What if Zwick has a monster game in the opener?
"He'd probably play against Texas, too," Daniels said.
Keep this in mind: Smith will not have thrown a pass in a game for nearly 10 months by the time Texas rolls around. He has a lot of ground to make up between now and Sept. 10.
"I didn't expect to be high and mighty when I came back," Smith said.
"I've got to sort of build myself back up. For the most part, I can only put it on myself because the decision [to take money] was made by me.
"It is kind of frustrating, but it is what it is and I just got to deal with it."
Zwick currently is handling two-thirds of the snaps with the first-string offense, Smith one-third.
Both quarterbacks will play in the Scarlet and Gray game on April 23.
Barring an injury, Zwick will head back to the bench once Smith is cleared to play in September.
It's hard to tell how Zwick feels about all this. He was supposed to be made available to the media, but never did show up.
That left Smith, 4-1 as a starter last year, and Daniels to do all the talking.
Daniels talked about Zwick's arm. He talked about Smith's maturity.
However, Daniels never mentioned that Smith already has two strikes against him.
In addition to taking money from a booster, Smith was found guilty of a disorderly conduct charge in 2003 for his role in an off-campus fight that involved receiver Santonio Holmes and five women.
Come fall, everyone will forget those bonehead blunders by Smith. He gives the Buckeyes the best chance to win. That's why he will be the No. 1 quarterback.
Contact Ron Musselman at:
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