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July 29, 2011

Fickell steps into tough spot at Ohio State

CHICAGO - Ready or not, Luke Fickell has been shoved into one of college football's brightest spotlights, going from fast-rising assistant to interim coach at Ohio State.

Jim Tressel was swallowed up by an NCAA investigation, leaving Buckeyes officials scrambling for a leader.

Fickell, 37, was chosen to navigate this glamorous program through what could be one of its most trying seasons. Is he ready?

"I don't like the circumstances in which he got the job," said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald, the Big Ten's most recent "boy wonder" coach, at Big Ten Media Days on Friday. "But I think Luke will be OK."

Ohio State has won at least a share of the past six Big Ten crowns but faces an Aug. 12 meeting with the NCAA to learn its fate following a scandal that centers on players receiving improper benefits. That tosses the near-future of the program - and Fickell - into doubt.

"Our focus is on what we can control," Fickell said Friday. "I think that's been from Day One, from that leadership standpoint. Nobody puts more pressure on themselves than me. So all the outside pressures are things that obviously you deal with."

Fickell, a former Ohio State defensive tackle and Columbus native, was made for this job. But the timing isn't good.

"The greatest thing, I guess I could say, is I had no time to sit and think," Fickell said. "I had no time to feel sorry of any sort, to have a whole lot of emotion. The situation arose and obviously I had to stand up.

"I think that's what's been best for me, not to have the ability to sit down and think about the situation that's ahead but hit the ground running, do what I know how to do best and that's compete."

On the field, questions loom. The defense Fickell used to co-coordinate should be fine. But the offense is another issue. Star quarterback Terrelle Pryor has left school, a casualty of the NCAA scandal, casting questions about the Buckeyes' attack, particularly the passing game.

"I'm not sure what to expect," senior center Michael Brewster said. "Coach Tressel is gone. So is [wide receiver] coach [Darrell] Hazel [who left to become coach at Kent State]. They both had big hands in the offense. But I think we'll be OK."

You hear that a lot from folks at Ohio State. You also hear them talk time and again about "controlling the things we can control."

"That's all we can worry about," senior linebacker Andrew Sweat said. "We need to show the nation what we can do with our actions."

Fickell knows that. He knows words in July mean little; he knows he'll be judged on Saturdays in the fall.

"I mean, every year going into a season, I don't care what team you are, where you're at, especially at Ohio State, you're out there to prove what you can do," Fickell said. "It's a senior-oriented team and ... all indications show that the group has really come tight together. They say the right things. They're doing the right things. But we keep referring to them and trying to remind them when we have the opportunities, that we see a lot better than we hear."

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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