2005 RECORD: 10-2 (7-1 in Big Ten) RETURNING STARTERS: 10
WR Anthony Gonzalez (Jr.)
Moves into the No. 2 receiver role after catching 28 passes in '05
C Doug Datish (Sr.)
Three-year starter shifts from tackle
RB Antonio Pittman (Jr.)
Division I-A's 11th-leading rusher last year, with 1,331 yards
Big Man on Campus
Against Michigan, quarterback Troy Smith is 2-0 as a starter, and he is coming off a season in which he threw 16 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Now the senior will try to lead the Buckeyes to their second national title in five years
The development of a young defense will be key to the Buckeyes' championship hopes
Defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock was lifting weights next to several of his longtime teammates last spring when he realized he was out of place. "I looked around," the fifth-year senior recalls, "and it was basically me and everyone who was going to the draft." Nine starters from the Buckeyes' fifth-ranked defense, including first-round picks A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner, signed with NFL teams. That Ohio State is still considered the team to beat in the national championship race is a testament to its firepower on offense. But those close to the program believe the Buckeyes have their share of playmakers on defense, too. "They're going to be fast," Troy Smith said after facing the defense in the spring. "I'm 100 percent confident those guys will be ready for Game 1."
One of the new defensive leaders is expected to be senior middle linebacker John Kerr, who racked up 114 tackles as a freshman at Indiana in 2002 before transferring to OSU. He spent the past two seasons stuck behind Hawk, Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel, a third-round draft pick. More than half of the Buckeyes' projected starters on defense are sophomores, though most of them aren't strangers to game action. Strongside linebacker James Laurinaitis filled in for an injured Carpenter in the last two games of the season; defensive end Lawrence Wilson played in 10 games; and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins had nine tackles in the Fiesta Bowl. "They've seen some spot duty," says coach Jim Tressel, "but they need a lot more experience before they can be a defense that runs on all cylinders."
Where the Buckeyes will be clicking is up front with Pitcock and David Patterson, who defensive coordinator Jim Heacock believes could be the best tackle tandem in the country. "The great teams we face are going to make big plays," says Pitcock. "That's when the seniors are going to have to turn to the younger guys and say, 'Calm down.'"
Pitcock is among the 12 players remaining from the 2002 team that upset Miami in the Fiesta Bowl to win the national title, though all but one of them redshirted that year. "We haven't won a national championship for ourselves," says Pitcock. "It's a big motivating factor." If the Buckeyes reach the title game, it will mark their fourth trip to Arizona in the past five postseasons. "But we haven't been to Glendale," says Tressel, referring to the Phoenix suburb where the title game will be held for the first time. "We'd like to see Glendale."
-- Stewart Mandel