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OHIO STATE LINEBACKER ROSS HOMAN SPENDS NEARLY EVERY DAY AT THE Buckeyes' football complex, the Woody Hayes Athletics Center, where he's greeted with constant reminders of the illustrious standards set by his predecessors. "Whenever you walk down our awards hallway, you see Chris Spielman, A.J. Hawk, [James] Laurinaitis and other guys," says Homan. "It's kind of crazy, all the great linebackers who have played here."
Homan, a fifth-year senior, is doing his part to uphold their legacy. Last season he helped lead the Buckeyes to the Big Ten title by making a team-high 108 tackles (fifth most in the conference) while also intercepting five passes and recovering two fumbles. Along with middle linebacker Brian Rolle (94 tackles), Homan made sure Ohio State's stout defense didn't slip despite losing veteran standouts Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. "We've been fortunate to have a great run of linebackers in our history," says Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel. "Ross is a darn good one."
Homan had to bide his time before he broke out last year. After graduating from high school early, the small-school star from Coldwater, Ohio, turned heads during Ohio State's 2006 spring practices but spent his freshman season as a backup and took a medical redshirt the next year due to lingering turf toe. Though he moved into a starting role in his third season, he was largely overshadowed by Laurinaitis and Freeman. But Homan made his presence felt early last year when, in a national prime-time game against USC, he made a game-high nine tackles and picked off Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley. By season's end he'd forced or recovered eight turnovers.
Tressel believes his linebacker's knack for the ball dates to his high school days, when as a two-way player for Coldwater's 2005 Ohio Division IV state title team, he rushed for 1,412 yards and caught 31 passes as a tailback. "He is an excellent athlete, and he's very instinctive," says Tressel of the 6-foot, 227-pound Homan. "He does a great job reading the quarterback."
Perhaps that's because Homan spent part of his youth watching two particular quarterbacks: his cousin Bobby Hoying, who was Ohio State's starter from 1993 through '95 and went on to spend six seasons in the NFL, and Bobby's brother, Tom, who played for the Buckeyes shortly thereafter. "I knew then I was going to Ohio State," says Homan. "I didn't have a choice."
Homan kept watching Buckeyes games and by high school had found a new favorite player: Hawk, a two-time All-America and first-round pick of the Green Bay Packers. Five years later Homan is manning Hawk's old position at weakside linebacker. While he's slightly smaller than Hawk (and without the long hair), Homan's sideline-to-sideline pursuit draws favorable comparisons. He hasn't gotten nearly the acclaim that his vaunted predecessors did (Homan was a second-team All-Big Ten honoree last year), but that could change with a huge senior season, something that crossed his mind when deciding last January whether to enter the NFL draft. (He received a third-round grade from the NFL advisory board.) "It's a huge step to try to get to a level with those guys," Homan said then. "It's always a goal of mine. Will I get there? Probably not."
Don't be so sure. On the field, at least, Homan usually gets where he wants to go.