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NO. 1 USC VS. NO. 5 OHIO STATE

Passing the BUCKS

Ohio State's Boeckman isn't worried about the threat of a freshman taking his starting job. He's mentoring Pryor.

September 10, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Columbus, Ohio

It might not seem fair, all this commotion over the new quarterback at Ohio State.

From the moment Terrelle Pryor arrived on campus as the top high school recruit in the nation, fans and the media have clamored for details.

They want to know about the big kid with the strong arm and tailback moves. When will he break into the lineup? How many snaps will he get?

In all the excitement, they seem to have forgotten that the Buckeyes already have a starting quarterback, a fifth-year senior who guided the team to the national championship game last season.

"It's not a big deal," Todd Boeckman says. "It doesn't bug me."

There isn't much flash to the man who leads fifth-ranked Ohio State into the Coliseum against top-ranked USC on Saturday. A traditional drop-back passer. Smart and steady. Like the tortoise in the fable, he has been inching toward this moment too long to worry about "Pryormania."

"There is so much attention [given to Pryor] that Todd's aware of that," Coach Jim Tressel said. "Maybe, in some ways, he kind of likes it so he can be left on his own."

Operating in the shadows is nothing new for the 24-year-old from the small town of St. Henry, Ohio. The son of a high school coach, he always wanted to play for the Buckeyes.

But Tressel was leaning toward another in-state prospect in 2002, a player by the name of Brady Quinn. When Quinn chose Notre Dame, Tressel decided not to include a quarterback in the recruiting class.

The coach asked Boeckman to "grayshirt" by enrolling part-time in 2003 and officially joining the team the next season.

"I stepped up and said I wanted to play here," Boeckman recalled. "I knew it would be worth the wait."

The wait was just beginning.

For the next three years, Boeckman stood in line behind Troy Smith and Justin Zwick. He didn't like riding the bench, had to keep reminding himself there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

Not that he complained.

"A calm, cool guy," tailback Maurice Wells said. "He doesn't get too amped up about anything."

Last fall, Boeckman finally assumed the starting role. His average of 187 yards in total offense a game and touchdown-to-interception ratio of 25 to 14 weren't spectacular, but in leading the Buckeyes to the title game against Louisiana State, he completed more than 63% of his passes and ranked 13th in the nation in efficiency. Gradually, teammates saw him mature.

"Todd was just trying to prove to everybody that he could do it," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "This summer, you could see him becoming more vocal."

Boeckman was becoming a leader. Just in time for Pryor, the new kid with unearthly numbers. As a high school senior, he passed for 1,889 yards, rushed for 1,899 more and averaged almost four touchdowns a game. Boeckman didn't need convincing.

"Boy, he can run," the veteran said. "His skill level is so high."

The hype began immediately, with glowing reviews in the media and letters to the editor from fans. Tressel made a point of praising Boeckman but acknowledged that the freshman would become part of the offense right away.

And how did Boeckman react?

It felt awkward at first, he says, "a guy coming in here with all these accolades." But the coach's son set about mentoring Pryor, showing him how to dissect film and act in the huddle, how to recognize defenses.

"Terrelle is so anxious to learn and Todd is a good teacher," Tressel said. "I think from a football standpoint, there was an immediate click."

Laurinaitis watched the relationship develop, saying: "Todd's helped Terrelle in so many ways . . . that's the sign of a good leader."

In the season opener against Youngstown State, Boeckman completed 14 of 19 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns, but Pryor grabbed much of the spotlight, entering the game on the Buckeyes' third possession.

The 6-foot-6 freshman completed his first pass for nine yards, sparking a drive that resulted in a field goal. Later, he dashed 18 yards for a touchdown.

"I'd hoped he would go in and learn some lessons, do some things, have some fun," Tressel said. "And I think he did all of the above."

The Buckeyes had found a one-two punch, alternating steady with explosive. Boeckman said: "The last couple of years it's worked out for Florida and LSU. If he can come in and make plays . . . let's do it."

But an interesting thing happened against Ohio last Saturday. With the Buckeyes struggling -- maybe looking ahead to USC -- Tressel stuck with Boeckman.

The veteran engineered two second-half touchdown drives as the Buckeyes pulled out a 26-14 victory. Pryor played only two series, one in each half, the last only after the victory was secure.

Now comes USC.

The Trojans have prepared for both quarterbacks, mindful that Pryor has the raw talent to change a game. But defensive coordinator Nick Holt said they also have studied the other guy.

The senior who has quietly amassed a 13-2 record. Who has completed 67% of his passes for two touchdowns with no interceptions this fall.

"If you're a starter at Ohio State, you're a pretty darn good football player," Holt said. "He's won a lot of games for them."

In other words, the Trojans aren't forgetting about Boeckman.

--

david.wharton@latimes.com

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