COLUMBUS - Next spring's NFL draft is expected to be crowded with Buckeyes - linebackers A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, and Anthony Schlegel, kicker Josh Huston, center Nick Mangold, safety Nate Salley, and defensive end Mike Kudla - all mentioned frequently as players who could continue their football careers by playing on Sundays and cashing a check for their efforts.
Those seniors will play their final game for Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, but next season's lineup card for the Buckeyes could be further depleted if several talented juniors make the jump to the pros. They are standing on the ledge right now and putting their fingers in the air, checking the direction of the wind to see if it is a favorable time to make the leap into the NFL.
Safety Donte Whitner, cornerback Ashton Youboty and split end Santonio Holmes are mulling it over, but don't appear to be ready to say anything definitive on entering the draft, or returning to Ohio State for a final season.
"You gotta look at all the information that's out there and make a sensible decision," Whitner said. "You can't just do it on emotion, or because somebody else did it. Leaving early for the NFL is a major step, and once you decide, there's no turning back. You gotta look at all of the positives and the negatives, and make a decision you can live with."
While the money and the fame of the NFL tug at Whitner from one side, he is pulled the other direction by the prospects of what he might give up if he does leave Ohio State early.
"Our defense is losing a number of seniors - the real leaders - so I've thought about the possibility of being a captain next year, and maybe increasing my position in the eyes of the pros with a great year," Whitner said. "And since this is Ohio State, there is always the thought that we could be playing for a national championship next season, and that is in the back of your mind, too."
Although the flow of early departures to the NFL has slowed considerably since Jim Tressel took over as head coach of the Buckeyes five seasons ago, there is a long list of outstanding players who, over the past 12 or 13 seasons, have left the Buckeyes before using all their eligibility.
Two-time All-America linebacker Hawk was projected as a potential top five pick last year after he completed a brilliant junior season, then wowed the pro scouts with a 4.46 40-yard dash during a pre-draft workout. Hawk decided to stay at Ohio State and finish out his career, a decision he contends was the best thing he could have done.
"There was a lot of talk about that, and stuff in the media about me maybe going early, but I never really gave it any serious thought," Hawk said. "I was just looking forward to my senior year, knowing we had a lot of guys coming back and the potential was there for a championship type season. If you perform on the field, the opportunity to play at the next level will be there."
The diminutive Holmes, a 5-10, 185 pounder who led the Buckeyes this season with 48 receptions for 853 yards, is projected by many NFL scouts as a likely first round pick, if he leaves Ohio State after the Fiesta Bowl. In the pre-season, Holmes often referred to the 2005 season as his "money year" when his performance on the field would get the attention of the pros and secure his future.
"I haven't decided, and like I've said before, I haven't looked at those projection lists all season," Holmes said. "I have just been focusing on doing everything I can to help this team win, knowing that will help determine what happens from here on out. No one is telling me what to do or which way to go - it's my decision and I'll make it when I feel comfortable about it."
Tressel said each case is different, but as a rule he would expect underclassmen who are solidly projected as first-round NFL draft choices to consider all of their options.
"I think that if a junior is a pretty certain first-round draft choice, then they would probably need to consider it, from a business standpoint," Tressel said. "We always stress the team concept here at Ohio State, but we never mean to take that to the expense of someone's individual goals and dreams. There's a lot to consider, and each young man, each situation, is really distinct and different."
Whitner said he plans to go home to Cleveland for the Christmas holiday, relax and enjoy the time off, and then return his focus to preparing for the showdown with Notre Dame in the bowl game. He expects to address the NFL draft issue once the Fiesta Bowl is history.
"Right now, it's not the top thing on my mind - not even close," Whitner said. "I am just looking forward to being home for Christmas. With the bowl games we've been in the past few years - I don't even remember the last time I was home for Christmas. I want to see my family and friends, and then get ready to play Notre Dame. The NFL will always be there, whether it's this year or next."
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