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College Football
Stewart Mandel
May 01, 2006
Buck Stoppers Loaded on offense, Ohio State could be putting its title hopes in the hands of a set of largely untested linebackers
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May 01, 2006

College Football

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Buck Stoppers
Loaded on offense, Ohio State could be putting its title hopes in the hands of a set of largely untested linebackers

As Ohio State's likely starting strongside linebacker this fall, James Laurinaitis knows well what's in store for him the first time he misses a tackle or blows an assignment. "People are going to say, 'If that was A.J. or Bobby, that wouldn't have happened,'" says Laurinaitis.

A.J. and Bobby are former Buckeyes linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, projected first-round picks in this weekend's NFL draft who, along with departed senior Anthony Schlegel, combined for 252 tackles and 191/2 sacks for 10--2 Ohio State last season. While the Buckeyes enter 2006 with a bevy of playmaking stars on offense ( quarterback Troy Smith, wideout Ted Ginn Jr., running back Antonio Pittman), last Saturday's Scarlet and Gray game gave the 63,649 on hand their first opportunity to scrutinize the many new players on defense, most notably the linebackers.

Ohio State isn't completely devoid of experience at the position. As a freshman at Indiana in 2002, John Kerr finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten in tackles, with 114. After a falling-out with then Hoosiers coach Gerry DiNardo, Kerr transferred to OSU, where, after sitting out a year, he played mostly on special teams for the past two seasons. "When you're behind a guy like A.J., your options are kind of limited," says Kerr, a native of Strongsville, Ohio, who because of the Big Ten's intraconference transfer rules is prohibited from receiving scholarship aid. His patience should finally be rewarded this season, as Kerr is listed as the starter at middle linebacker. "It will be exciting to actually go out there and hit people," he says. "It's been four years."

Kerr is expected to be joined in the lineup by Laurinaitis, a sophomore who filled in for an injured Carpenter against Michigan and Notre Dame at the end of last season, and third-year sophomore Marcus Freeman, who will take over Hawk's vacated weakside position. Their spots are not locked up, however, due to impressive performances this spring by a pair of newcomers. Ross Homan, a freshman from Coldwater, Ohio, who enrolled in January, turned heads in his first spring workouts, drawing comparisons with a young Hawk. He led the Scarlet team with eight tackles on Saturday. Then there's Larry Grant, an athletic transfer from City College of San Francisco who was the 2005 junior college national player of the year. "Every day he shows you why you have to find a way to make him impact your team," says coach Jim Tressel.

Along with hard-hitting junior Curtis Terry and promising redshirt freshman Austin Spitler, Tressel believes he has seven candidates for three starting positions. "They all run well, they all seem to be learning well," he says. "From those seven guys we're going to end up with a pretty solid linebacking corps."

With last year's starting secondary wiped out as well, the new linebackers will need to jell quickly if the Buckeyes are to contend for the 2006 national title. (Several polls have tabbed Ohio State as the likely preseason No. 1.) They visit defending national champion Texas on Sept. 9 in their second game. It was an encouraging sign, however, that the young defenders held their own against their vaunted offensive counterparts in spring scrimmages, and neither the Scarlet nor the Gray cracked 300 yards of offense on Saturday. "If we can stop our team," says Laurinaitis, "we're going to be all right."

Early Risers

Three highly touted quarterbacks who signed with Top 20 programs in February enrolled early and were on the field for spring practice. Here's how they fared.

? Texas coach Mack Brown indicated that Jevan Snead (above) will platoon with redshirt freshman Colt McCoy to start the season. Snead completed 9 of 13 passes for 97 yards with a touchdown and an interception in the Longhorns' spring game.

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