CHICAGO While the official party line in the Big Ten always works its way back to the parity in the league, and the manner in which the football talent pool is now so equally divided, the folks that cover the conference don t appear to be buying into those platitudes.
The media whose job it is to dissect and scrutinize the Big Ten on a daily basis seems to strongly believe that some of the premier players in the league still run their wind sprints and do their weight lifting in Columbus.
For the sixth year in a row, one of the Ohio State Buckeyes has been chosen as the Big Ten preseason player of the year on either offense or defense.
In the 2007 season, Ohio State linebacker James Laurinaitis is expected to be the top performer on defense, while Michigan running back Mike Hart was the choice as preseason offensive player of the year.
Ohio State has the longest and thickest tradition of preseason honorees in the conference over the past decade-plus, dating back to 1997 and 1998 when linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer was twice chosen as the prime defensive talent in the conference at this annual meeting of the league s officials, coaches and media. A.J. Hawk was another two-time award winner (2004, 2005).
Laurinaitis (6-foot-3, 245 pounds) is the latest in that line of standout linebackers at Ohio State. He appeared in 12 games as a freshman in 2005, and replaced the injured Bobby Carpenter in the Michigan game and in the Fiesta Bowl that season. Last year Laurinaitis won the Nagurski Trophy as the nation s top defensive player, and was named an All-American after recording 115 tackles, five interceptions and four sacks.
James made a lot of plays for us last year, and obviously he raised some awareness of his abilities, Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. He s a good, tough player.
It s a tremendous honor to receive any type of recognition like that in the Big Ten, because of all the talented players in this conference, said Laurinaitis, who did not attend the affair here at the downtown Hyatt.
Michigan s Hart (5-9, 195) returned to form last season after an injury-riddled 2005, and he earned All-American honors with 1,562 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns and nine 100-yard games. Hart was a freshman All-American in 2004, and the Big Ten s freshman of the year with 1,455 rushing yards, a Michigan freshman record.
He was fifth in last year s Heisman Trophy voting, and is considered one of the early favorites to win college football s most prestigious award. Hart is likely the country s most secure ball carrier he has lost one fumble in 750 career carries.
It s an honor, but it s an honor for my whole team and the Michigan program, not just for me, Hart said about the preseason distinction.
All of our goals are team goals, and if we accomplish those then maybe the individual awards will come along with it. But right now all of our attention is on preparing as best we can and then accomplishing things as a team.
Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said Hart, who was kept out of contact in spring ball as he recovered from an injury suffered in the Rose Bowl, comes back even more dangerous, since he has focused his offseason workouts on adding strength.
This season you will see a guy who is much stronger, much bigger physically than a year ago, Carr said. Mike Hart is an outstanding person and an outstanding football player, and a joy to be around. From the first time we saw him play, you just sensed that he was a guy who loved to win, and loved to play the game.
Michigan s only other preseason honoree in the past decade was defensive back Marlin Jackson in 2003.