During the summer, Jim Tressel drives around Columbus in a 1985 Dodge Ram pickup, a rust-dappled homage to steel-toed boots and calloused hands. "It's a workin' truck," the Buckeyes' coach said one hot afternoon in July, as he hopped out of the cab in shorts and a gray T-shirt. "Summer's a working time, so it's just right." Make no mistake, the truck is also a symbol because even a team that went 14-0 and won its first national championship in 34 years can't get too cocky when the coach's ride looks like something that should be hauling manure. The message is clear: new year, new team. There will be no residual props from last season, which culminated in a 31-24 double-overtime win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl.
Tressel has been inoculating the Buckeyes against bigtiming since the winter. "The theme is, What are we gonna do now?" says senior strong safety Will Allen. "Coach has been telling us we've got a bigger bull's-eye on our back. We're the national champions." During spring practice Ohio State players met every day at 7 a.m. to watch game tapes from the 2002 season. Tressel had done this before, but these sessions took on added significance. "Watching those games," says senior linebacker Robert Reynolds, "you realized how lucky we were. On defense alone, you take away the lucky plays, we could have been 10-4 instead of 14-0."
There's enough talent in Columbus to repeat, although it might have to function differently. A year ago Tressel, whose football philosophy is no less conservative than his taste in vehicles, leaned on a stifling defense, a world-class kicking game and a close-to-the-vest offense. That approach will be tested now that six starters—including All-America strong safety Mike Doss, linebacker Matt Wilhelm (the team's leading tackier) and punter Andy Groom—are gone.
But one returning player does allow Tressel to loosen things up. Junior Chris Gamble looms as the first full-time two-way player in the two-platoon era. Last year Gamble, already a terrific flanker, lobbied his way into the defensive secondary—"Every day we'd be doing one-on-ones with the receivers, and Chris would say, 'Let me play D, let me play D,' " says Allen—and by the end of the season he was playing nearly every down, plus returning punts and kickoffs. "Now," says Gamble, "I've got to get on the field goal block team." Says Tressel, "We'll think about it. He's amazing coming off the corner."
Gamble, who has added 10 pounds and now weighs 194, cruises through a hectic game day or practice routine like a man walking the beach. "I've got everything down pat now," he says. "I split everything down the middle, half offense and half defense for drills and meetings. My NFL future is probably at defensive back, but playing receiver makes me a better defensive player, too." His goals for 2003 are outlandish by normal standards: 10 touchdown receptions and 10 interceptions. Of course, Gamble isn't normal.
Fans in Columbus expect the offense to be more than ordinary too. All the starters return, including senior quarterback Craig Krenzel, the Fiesta Bowl offensive MVP; senior split end Michael Jenkins, who caught 61 passes for 1,076 yards; and (hopefully for the Buckeyes) sophomore tailback Maurice Clarett, who rushed for 1,237 yards despite missing all of three games and parts of two others with a shoulder injury. "If we're going to win, we can't do everything the same way we did last year," says senior offensive tackle Shane Olivea. "Teams put eight or nine in the box, and we tried to run it down their throat. The coaches have got to let us mix it up."
Clarett, a precocious, 6-foot, 230-pound NFL-ready runner, will be at the center of any game plan provided he remains eligible after spending the summer under a cloud over allegations that he had gotten preferential treatment on at least one exam and received improper gifts, and after he admitted that he had filed an erroneous police report by overstating the value of items that had been stolen last spring out of a vehicle he'd borrowed from a Columbus car dealer. In a program in which team unity is preached daily, Clarett is an enigma. He often skipped summer conditioning drills to train in his hometown of Warren, Ohio. But Tressel says, "When you look at Maurice, you know he's been training."
History warns that winning back-to-back titles is difficult—since 1979 only Nebraska (1994 and '95) has done it. Ohio State embraces the challenge. "No woulda, couldas, that's what we're saying," says senior center Alex Stepanovich. "We want this even more than last year." If they get it, Tressel's truck will come in handy in January to haul off the national championship hardware.
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