COLUMBUS - Alex Boone yanked off his pads, stripped away the tape, and dropped his helmet in disgust. It was Jan. 7, and Ohio State had just lost in the national championship game for the second year in a row.
The sting left Boone and a lot of the Buckeyes hurting initially, but they soon gathered themselves, recognized the significance of their third straight Big Ten Conference championship and an 11-2 season, and decided to postpone professional football and return to campus for one final fling.
"The NFL - that's a job and the money is nice, but even though we work hard at football here, we also have a lot of fun at it, too," Boone said. "And there's something about your senior season that seemed too good to pass up."
So Boone, a massive offensive tackle who will be a four-year starter for the Buckeyes and a leading candidate for the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman, came back. So did All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis, All-Big Ten quarterback Todd Boeckman, leading receiver Brian Robiskie, three-year starting linebacker Marcus Freeman, and two-time All-Big Ten defensive back Malcolm Jenkins.
They all came back, and collectively make the Buckeyes the odds-on favorite to win a fourth consecutive Big Ten title, and quite possibly take them back to that national championship game once again.
"I think everyone came back for their own reasons, but we all love being here, and being part of the history and the tradition at Ohio State," Jenkins said. "There is a sense of unfinished business, but I don't think we're here just because of the way the last game turned out. We wantto play together one more time, try and win 'em all, and see what happens."
With the return of all that pro potential, the Buckeyes are loaded. They have nine starters back on both sides of the line, a ton of depth, and some dynamic new players who will figure prominently in the mix. The steady Boeckman threw for 2,379 yards and 25 touchdowns last year, his first as a starter, and prize recruit Terrelle Pryor should provide an interesting situational alternative at the quarterback position.
Junior tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells enters the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,609 yards and 15 touchdowns. Wells has the frame to punish people (6-1, 225) and the speed to run away from them. Brandon Saine, Maurice Wells and Dan "Boom" Herron give Ohio State a variety of backfield weapons behind Wells. When a fullback is part of the operation, senior Brandon Smith likely gets the call.
Robiskie and junior Brian Hartline combined for 107 receptions in 2007, and sophomore Dane Sanzenbacher and junior Ray Small strengthen the receiving corps. Tight ends Rory Nicol and Jake Ballard are sound blockers and sure-handed outlets in traffic.
"We've got some weapons, a lot of real talent on the offensive side," Boeckman said. "I look around the huddle and see a bunch of playmakers."
Up front the Buckeyes might have the Big Ten's best line with Boone joined by experienced guard Steve Rehring on the left side, junior Jim Cordle at center, and senior guard Ben Person on the right side. The only new face is sophomore Bryant Browning at right tackle.
"Looking at what we have back, it's not surprising that the expectations are real high," Hartline said, "but that's not unusual. We're used to that around here. I'm excited to see what we can accomplish."
The defense is also loaded with athletes and playmakers. Lawrence Wilson returns at one end after missing last season with a broken leg, and Cameron Heyward is back as a disruptive pass-rusher at the other end. Doug Worthington, Todd Denlinger, Dexter Larimore and Nader Abdallah have loads of size, strength and experience inside.
Laurinaitis and Freeman might be the nation's best one-two combination at linebacker, where sophomore Ross Homan steps into a starting role alongside them. Jenkins anchors a veteran, skilled secondary with Chimdi Chekwa, Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell.
"There's a lot of pride in this defense, and it's not guys worrying about their own numbers and things like that," Laurinaitis said. "We thrive as a unit. There's a real sense of brotherhood, of fighting for each other on every play."
A lot of attention has been paid to improving the kick return game, where Herron and Saine will line up deep for the Buckeyes. Hartline and Small are the punt returners. The kicking side of special teams is sound, with senior A.J. Trapasso handling the punting and senior Ryan Pretorious doing the placekicking.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, beginning his eighth season directing the Buckeyes, said that as he scrolls through his roster and sees all those veterans, all those guys who passed on the NFL to come back here, he feels an obligation to give them the best final season.
"We do have a fierce [sense of] urgency, because we've got an older group and all of us want to make sure this season is a great one for those 27 seniors," Tressel said. "This is the last time that they get to experience that Horseshoe. So I think your urgency is demonstrated in your performance, but so far I've seen good urgency."
Boone does not disguise the fact that many of the Ohio State seniors came back to get the one thing that has eluded them. They have dominated rival Michigan, won three straight Big Ten crowns, and gone 33-5, but they have not won the big one.
"We've done a lot, accomplished a lot while we're here, but to come back and try to get that one last go-round, that's why we're here," Boone said. "Team comes before everything, and I think we're going to do great. You can't fear anything, you just go out and have fun."