COLUMBUS -- For most of the last couple months, they have been tucked away in the bunker, sequestered and protected from the expected barrage of prickly questions as a scandal rampaged and the Ohio State football program teetered toward implosion.
They continued to meet, to work out, and make preparations for the 2011 season, but they operated cloaked in secrecy, as much like a cloistered convent as an elite college team.
A few days ago, some of the Buckeyes still standing emerged to give a status report.
Following the clumsy exit of their ultra-successful head coach Jim Tressel, and the blatantly self-serving departure of starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the Ohio State players indicated they are forging ahead despite a climate far removed from business as usual.
Regardless of being saddled with NCAA suspensions, with potentially crippling sanctions yet to come, the incumbent Buckeyes are hugging a party line that adheres to the philosophy that what hasn't killed them will indeed make them stronger.
"We have all become closer together through the adversity," senior defensive back Nate Oliver said. "It's been different, but we understand there's adversity that happens every day. You just have to face it and move on ... and we'll be better for it."
The Buckeyes will enter the 2011 season with former defensive assistant Luke Fickell as head coach. He was hastily moved into an interim role when Tressel faced a suspension for the first five games, then given the job for the entire season when Tressel stepped down at the end of May.
Back in December, the NCAA suspended Pryor and four other Ohio State players for the first five games of 2011 after it was revealed that the group had sold OSU memorabilia and game wear for cash and discounts on tattoos. When a separate investigation in January discovered that Tressel had known about the violations early in 2010 but had failed to report them, he was also suspended.
As the scandal snowballed and included scrutiny of car deals for Ohio State athletes, the pressure intensified, and Tressel was forced out. Pryor left just over a week later.
Fickell, who was a four-year starter at nose tackle during his playing days with the Buckeyes, will undoubtedly lean heavily on the team's veterans. All-American center Mike Brewster, who has become the defacto team leader amidst all of the turmoil, said Tressel's departure hit like a shock wave, but the players stayed united.
"It was tough emotionally for a day or two, but workouts never stopped, and things kept going. And they have to for us to be successful," Brewster said. "There was no point where we were down or felt sorry for ourselves."
Brewster, a Florida native who moved into the starting lineup early in his freshman season and has been an anchor up front ever since, said that rather than be splintered by all of the turmoil, the Buckeyes have closed ranks.
"If anything, we've just gotten tighter as a group," he said. "This is a great group of guys, and we aren't going to back down because of things that happened in the past. If anything, we're working harder than ever."
Junior defensive tackle John Simon echoed Brewster's sentiments, saying that the issues that have been raised over the past seven months have cemented the bond inside the Ohio State locker room.
"I would say we have all rallied together, and it proved that we need each other now more than ever," Simon said.
"You can really tell during our workouts and off the field. It has turned out to be a positive. We have a great group of guys at Ohio State, and whatever comes out of this, we will be together."
Brewster wants no part of the doom-and-gloom some Buckeye fans are predicting for 2011, despite the fact that for the first five games Fickell will be working with an offense missing suspended returning starters DeVier Posey, Dan Herron and Mike Adams, and the departed Pryor.
"I know this team is going to be good. I have 100 percent confidence in this team," Brewster said. "Every year we have doubters, and this year there will be even more, but I'm really excited about this group. It might be the most fun I've ever had here. The challenge is beautiful."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.
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