Gamble will be busy trying to shut down Miami

By JOSH DUBOW, AP Sports Writer

PHOENIX (AP) - From the moment Chris Gamble first played defense for Ohio State it was clear he was more than just a receiver.

An interception in the end zone on his first play was just the start for a throwback player who never wants to stop playing.

Gamble is a rarity in this age of specialization. He plays receiver and cornerback as well as returning punts and kicks, skipping only a handful of plays each game.

"I just love football," Gamble said Sunday. "I want to go out there and play every play. I want to have fun and go out there and play."

Gamble just might have the toughest task of anyone in the Fiesta Bowl on Friday night against No. 1 Miami.

He'll be counted on to stop the Hurricanes' dangerous receiver, Andre Johnson, make key catches on offense and maybe break a return or two. He could be the rare player who could do all that.

"I don't think I've played up to my potential yet," he said. "I want to show my full potential and show how good our team is. We want to show we can play against Miami."

Gamble's most important -- and difficult -- job will come on defense when he matches up with Johnson, one of the top receivers in the country.

Johnson has sprinter's speed to go with his imposing 6-foot-3, 227-pound frame. The co-MVP of last season's Rose Bowl, Johnson has been even better this year, catching 48 passes for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns.

"They're prime-time players," Buckeyes free safety Donnie Nickey said. "That's going to be one of the most important matchups, put our best athlete on their best athlete and let them battle."

With Ohio State focusing on stopping Heisman finalist running back Willis McGahee and giving help to cornerback Dustin Fox, Gamble won't be getting much help.

If he can't control Johnson, the Buckeyes will be in trouble.

"They like to stack defenders in the box and leave the cornerbacks alone in a box playing man-to-man all game," Johnson said. "If that's what they want to do, let them do it. They have some good defenders but I don't think they can stop me."

Gamble has some stiff responsibilities for someone who didn't start play defense until the fourth game of the season. In that game against Cincinnati, Gamble intercepted a pass on his first play to help spur a Buckeyes' comeback.

He added another end-zone interception against Wisconsin, returned an interception for Ohio State's only touchdown against Penn State and was voted the co-MVP of the team.

"I think he plays with tremendous confidence and tremendous deep-ball judgment," Buckeyes defensive coordinator Mark Dantonio said. "He's very aware and that gives him an advantage. He's also been a receiver so he knows that end of the game a little bit. He plays with great poise."

The Buckeyes first started toying with making Gamble a two-way player during spring practice. For fun one day, Gamble tried to guard All-American safety Michael Doss and an idea was born.

"They liked my technique and my footwork at cornerback," Gamble said. "I wanted to do anything I could to help the team."

Gamble even prefers defense to offense these days, taking more pride in interceptions than touchdowns. There are also practical reasons.

"It's just fun to hit somebody," he said. "It's good to hit somebody because as a receiver you get hit so much."

After cornerback Richard McNutt got hurt, Gamble's playing time increased. He became a full two-way player on Oct. 26 against Penn State and slept 16 hours that night.

He needed the rest. He topped 100 plays in each of the final three games, including playing 128 of 146 plays in an overtime win against Illinois.

"You don't see that in football much anymore," Miami offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "That just shows you what kind of athlete he is."

Gamble is Ohio State's second-leading receiver with 29 catches, has four interceptions, 18 solo tackles and is a threat on returns.

Even Johnson is impressed.

"You know if he plays 100 plays a game that he must be a great athlete," Johnson said. "He makes plays on both sides of the ball. He's a big-time player for them."

But even Gamble has limits. A star basketball player for his high school, he doesn't have enough energy to go out for the Buckeyes hoops team.

"That's too much," he said. "In high school I could do that but I'm older now. I'm slipping. I get tired."

He just doesn't show it on the field.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)