Alex was not without his own mean streak. "He liked to finish people off, make a point," recalls Scott Niedzwiecki, who was the offensive coordinator at St. Edward. "He treated every snap like a six-second war."
While Boone attracted more Division I recruiters than had Barton—Alex chose Ohio State over Florida, Oklahoma and USC, among others—he seemed ill-prepared to replace Barton in front of that deafening crowd in Happy Valley. Glowering at him across the line was Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali, a future first-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I remember looking over at Hali and saying a prayer," recalls T.J. Downing, the guard next to Boone. He advised the freshman to "get your hands on him, and you'll be fine."
"Bulls---," replied Boone. "This guy's going to tear me apart."
Not true. Though Ohio State lost, Boone did not allow a sack, and his career was launched. He started the next three games while Barton recovered from his knee injury. Last year Barton was moved to the right side and Boone started 10 games at left tackle—the last being that nightmare in Arizona, a game that merely added to his demons.
WHILE HIS brother dealt with that "big anger," Alex wrestled with a correspondingly large thirst. The spring after his freshman season he was cited for DUI, having blown a 0.159 on the Breathalyzer (twice the state's legal limit; he was fined and ordered to attend alcohol awareness sessions). According to an August 2006 story in the Dayton Daily News, when Boone was a freshman the year before, he was "routinely downing 30 to 40 beers per day, a pattern of bingeing that began in high school and escalated when he arrived at OSU."
Asked recently if those numbers were accurate, the heretofore chatty 20-year-old grew reticent: "Now that I can't really talk about. I think some of it got exaggerated." Which parts? "I can't say which parts. Not to be mean or anything, but this has been a distraction, and I don't want to add to it."
According to the Daily News account, Boone had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Is his drinking under control? "Absolutely," he says.
As is his weight. After ballooning to 350, the 6'8" Boone leveled off at 315 this season and earned second-team All--Big Ten honors. He will probably line up against the Bayou Bengals even leaner. In a tacit admission that his team got a bit soft and stale in the 51 days between the 2006 Michigan game and the game against Florida, Tressel has ramped up conditioning. He added a torment called LSU Tiger Drills, a series of timed sprints throughout practice. "They're a good idea," says Boone, "but for a lineman, they suck."
YES, THE Buckeyes have to get past another scary-good SEC squad to win the national championship. But the pregame dynamic is different from last year's. The Buckeyes are 4 1/2-point underdogs, and they much prefer it that way.