Putting The Speed To The Buckeyes

By Bill Livingstone
Updated: January 5, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — Speed kills, al though in Ohio State’s case, the chance is that it only grazes — or provides a flesh wound at most.

“You’re too slow, you’re not going to make it, you don’t hit hard enough,” said offensive tackle Alex Boone, recounting the many perceived weaknesses of the Buckeyes as they prepare for Monday’s national championship game against LSU at the Superdome.

It is a reputation that sticks to the Buckeyes, Velcroed in place by their abominable performance against Florida, one of LSU’s SEC brethren, in last year’s championship game. It is also lashed to them by stereotypes about big, plodding Big Ten teams, tailored for bad weather, but reduced to helplessness on the artificial turf of domed stadiums.

“If you look at our NFL draft statistics over the last five years, when we’ve been considered slow, you can put it up against anybody,” offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. “But one bad game will give you that reputation.”

“People say speed kills, but it’s really speed, plus balance, that kills,” said Ohio State’s first speed coach for football, Butch Reynolds. “People forget about that power we have with [running back] Beanie Wells.”

The powerful Reynolds, from Hoban High School, held the world record for the 400 meters for 11 years. He was the silver medalist in the one-lap event at the 1988 Olympics and won a 4×400 relay gold medal. In his third year at his alma mater, Reynolds is convinced speed can be taught.

Although the Buckeyes do some distance running early in camp, that is mainly to see who is in shape and who isn’t. Reynolds uses exercises designed to produce short, quick-burst movements. Everyone has both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fiber, although the national suspicion is that, when Ted Ginn Jr. was hurt on the opening kickoff vs. Florida, the fast-twitch stuff limped to the sideline with him.

“Maybe you can’t match speed, but you can match quickness,” Reynolds said.

OSU players do a lot of “high-knee drills,” which is a manly way of saying skipping. Track and field athletes often skip to rouse their leg muscles and stretch them. It also gets the central nervous system firing like shooters at a carnival arcade.

The Buckeyes use plyometric exercises to produce fast, powerful movements. This requires muscles to lengthen, then contract sharply, like a miser snapping his wallet shut. Players build “core” (trunk) muscles by throwing medicine balls. They run against the resistance of parachutes or strong elastic bands.

Reynolds believes in the 10-yard dash as much as the more accepted 40-yarder. He gives each player’s first step the attention a Vermeer gets at an auction house.

Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins is one of three Buckeyes who will run track this year, the 100 and 200 in Jenkins’ case. He is joined by fellow secondary members Chimdi Chekwa and Donald Washington.

“I’ve seen a big personal improvement,” Jenkins said. “At first, [Reynolds] worked with us on mechanics, on how to run without losing energy with extra motion. Then he worked on building speed. Our offensive and defensive lines have benefited from it more than anybody.”

The demands of spring football keep many from running track. Ginn did not run even indoor track, possibly because the fastest man in college football did not want to risk not winning the Big Ten 60 meters.

Reynolds said freshman running back Brandon Saine and wideout Ray Small have run 4.3s in the 40 (“4.28 for Small,” he said), and that the 235-pound Wells clocks a “high 4.4 or a 4.5.” Quarterback Todd Boeckman is faster than Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was, although not as elusive.

“I could put Boeckman and [wide receiver] Brian Hartline in the 400 meters, and Small and Saine in the 100. You know the school of Butch Reynolds and Jesse Owens isn’t going to be any kind of slow Ohio,” Reynolds said.

Cleveland, a listener noted, is the “world’s fastest city” because it alone has produced two Olympic 100-meter gold medalists in Owens and Harrison Dillard.

“There you go,” said Reynolds, who expects his players to proceed with haste, too.