Deep, balanced Buckeyes hope third time's the charm

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Just this once, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel will be happy to forgive linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins for disobeying his orders.

It has been Tressel's long-standing rule that first-round prospects should leave early for the NFL. Laurinaitis was assured of being a top pick in the draft this year, and Jenkins likely would have been, too. But both defensive stars bypassed millions to hang out with their college buddies a little longer.

This made the coaching staff's work much easier this spring. With the Butkus Award winner and the Thorpe Award candidate already in place, along with a viable Heisman Trophy contender at tailback in Chris "Beanie" Wells, the biggest question during spring practice has become, "Who is going to play fullback?" Nearly every other position has already been settled.

The Buckeyes have to replace only four starters (fullback, right tackle, linebacker and defensive end) after making consecutive trips to the national championship game -- and a third straight appearance certainly seems possible. While that might irritate a nation tired of watching Ohio State get pummeled by the SEC in BCS championship games, it surprisingly wasn't the carrot that brought Laurinaitis back for his senior year.

"You have to realize how hard that [it] is just to get there," Laurinaitis said. "So that [winning a national championship] can't be your motivation. Your motivation has to be for the right reasons, for education and wanting to experience these lifelong friendships. You're not going to experience a team like this again."

The biggest personnel loss on defense is Vernon Gholston, who set a school record with 14 sacks last season and became the team's only underclassmen to defect early for the NFL. Most years, losing such a fierce pass-rusher would leave a gaping hole at defensive end. But in Columbus, Lawrence Wilson is healthy again and ready to produce.

It was supposed to be Wilson, not Gholston, registering huge sack figures last year. Then he broke his leg in the opener against Youngstown State and missed the rest of the season.

"I thought he was set up to have a really good year last year," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "I thought Lawrence was going to be a real cornerstone on the defense."

No problem. Now he'll be that this year.

Any lingering questions about Wilson's health were answered in Ohio State's spring game over the weekend. On one play, he shot through the offensive line so quickly, he accidentally ran over quarterback Todd Boeckman, who was in a black "no contact" jersey. Wilson's burst is back, thanks to the steel rod surgically implanted in his leg.

"I can't break it. It's stronger than my other leg," he said. "I don't have any worries about it."

Nor are there many worries about an offense that has the nation's most sought-after freshman in quarterback Terrelle Pryor and could produce the nation's best tailback in Wells. While Wells will start the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, Pryor will start off as a backup to Boeckman.

Wells missed all of the hitting for a second straight spring while recovering from offseason surgery to repair a broken bone in his hand. He played all last season with a painful ankle injury and the broken hand, yet he still rushed for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. If the Buckeyes can find a fullback from a group of walk-ons and linebackers, Wells might just make a run at 2,000 yards in 2008. Last season he ran behind a rotation of three fullbacks, two of whom were former walk-ons.

Tressel tinkered with Wells in split-back formations this spring alongside speedster Brandon Saine, but at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Saine will never be confused with a bruising blocker. Tressel prefers to keep Wells primarily in I formations.

"I think [finding a fullback] is very urgent," Tressel said. "Every time Beanie is not in the 'I,' I'd be happy if I was a defensive coach. So I don't want to make the defensive coaches happy."

Walk-on Ryan Lukens and linebacker Curtis Terry appear the most likely candidates to play fullback. Terry, a fifth-year senior, also missed all of last season with an ankle injury.

Ohio State needs a starting linebacker to replace Larry Grant, but the depth there runs much deeper than the names at fullback. Terry remains a linebacker at heart and has been assured by the coaches he can still play there in the fall, but in Saturday's spring game, he looked like a natural at fullback.

On a third-down run from the goal line, the 230-pound Terry stood up freshman linebacker Etienne Sabino at the line of scrimmage, allowing tailback Dan Herron to scoot into the end zone untouched.

"I still feel like I'm a defensive player," Terry said, "but we need a fullback."

With so many veterans returning, Tressel's challenge was finding a way to make this spring camp fresh. For the first time, all fourth- and fifth-year players -- in this case, nearly half the team -- had mandatory 7 a.m. meetings. Position coaches taught the entire team subtleties like defensive coverages and blitz pickups on the offensive line. For the first time, defensive linemen were learning what safeties were doing on certain calls and receivers were learning the offensive linemen's blocking schemes.

"We just thought it was a natural next step for our guys to be challenged and learn more about the game," Tressel said. "If you do the 'same old, same old,' you run the risk of losing your edge."

This fall, Ohio State will try to become the first team in the 112-year history of the Big Ten to win three straight outright conference championships. The Buckeyes are 23-3 over the past two years. Unfortunately for them, two of the three losses have come in the championship game.

"If you go into a season expected to win them all, you don't have any room for error," receiver Brian Hartline said. "If anything, that makes it a little more stressful. But here, we're used to having that stress. We're not going to shy away from it."

Jason Lloyd covers Ohio State for the Lorain Morning Journal and the Lake County News-Herald.