When Dane Sanzenbacher speaks before games, he senses the electricity in the Ohio State locker room.
Sanzenbacher, one of six Buckeyes co-captains this season, impels his teammates to carry over their energy onto the field. But he also tells them to leave something behind.
"It's an emotional game, there's a lot riding on everything, but you can't play with fear," Sanzenbacher says. "Fearlessness is probably one of the most important aspects of trying to be a good player. Nerves can be fine before a game or other emotions, but when it turns into fear, your opponent already has the upper hand."
Sanzenbacher's message might sound hollow if he didn't go out and back it up. Fortunately for Ohio State, there probably isn't a more fearless wide receiver in college football than No. 12.
Sanzenbacher's evolution as one of the Big Ten's best receivers has taken place in the middle of the field, usually surrounded by defensive backs and linebackers itching for a kill shot.
It has been a painful progression at times: Sanzenbacher suffered concussions in each of his first two seasons and has absorbed more than a few massive body blows, usually in midair. But the 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior wouldn't have it any other way.
"When the ball's in the air, you jump up to get it," Sanzenbacher said. "Yeah, in the back of your mind, you think, 'My legs might get taken out, I'm probably going to get hit on the end of this,' but you have to make the catch. It's the game we signed up for, so might as well play it."
Sanzenbacher has played it extremely well this season. He leads the Big Ten and ranks 26th nationally in total receiving yards (591). He's fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards average (73.9), sixth in receptions (4.6 rpg) and, before last week, led the league in touchdown receptions.
Sanzenbacher has caught eight touchdown passes -- one or more in five of Ohio State's first eight contests -- to match his total from his first three seasons.
Although the touchdown catches are nice, Sanzenbacher is best known for the plays he makes outside of the end zone. He made several gutsy grabs in Ohio State's Oct. 16 loss at Wisconsin, including this one, when he flipped over after a hit from Badgers safety Aaron Henry, but still hung on to the ball for a first down. After the game, members of the sideline crew found Sanzenbacher's father and congratulated him on Dane's gritty performance.
"He is fearless," Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel said. "My reaction is great when he comes up with those catches, and I cringe a little bit when I see people storming over there to take a good shot at him. But Dane can take care of himself."
Sanzenbacher downplays the punishment he appears to take on some of his more acrobatic catches.
"A lot of times, film can be deceiving," he said. "Sometimes I'll watch it on film, it'll look bad and I'm like, 'Wow, it really didn’t feel that bad.' And sometimes you’ll look at hits that hurt a lot and they didn't look that bad. So you can never really tell."
Sanzenbacher isn't the first Ohio State receiver to build his reputation on the most dangerous area of the field. After Sanzenbacher caught four touchdown passes in a Week 4 rout of Eastern Michigan, Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor called him a "slick little sneaky guy" and likened him to former Buckeyes Brian Hartline and Anthony Gonzalez.
It's a good comparison, as both Hartline and Gonzalez shined in the slot receiver role for the Buckeyes.
"The majority of the guys who have played this position before me, or had inside roles here, haven't been afraid to go across the middle," Sanzenbacher said. "It's probably a characteristic that gets you on the field. You wouldn’t be playing the position otherwise."