OSU ready to start spring practice

COLUMBUS – Between another painful championship-game loss last January and an early-season showdown with Southern California coming up on Sept. 13, Ohio State has a lot of work to do.

Since almost everybody’s back from last year, not much time will be spent on introductions or on giving the newcomers directions to the practice field.

“You’d think we’d be a smarter football team with all the experience we have,” coach Jim Tressel said yesterday, the day before the first official practice of the spring.

Experience?

The Buckeyes have an abundance of it.

A remarkable 47 players have been with the team for at least four years.

The Buckeyes were beaten 38-24 by LSU in the Bowl Championship Series national title game last Jan. 7. Since then, almost all of the news for the program has been positive.

Only one underclassman, defensive lineman Vernon Gholston, elected to give up his last year of eligibility to make himself available for the NFL draft late next month.

Gholston’s departure – along with that of senior starters Kirk Barton at right tackle, Dionte Johnson at fullback and Larry Grant at linebacker – means the Buckeyes welcome back 10 starters from one of the nation’s top defenses and nine starters on offense.

The returning headliners are linebacker James Laurinaitis, a first-team All-American who won the Butkus Award and was the Big Ten’s top defensive player, tailback and team MVP Chris “Beanie” Wells and quarterback Todd Boeckman.

Laurinaitis anchors a defense that also returns the entire secondary (corners Malcolm Jenkins and Donald Washington, safeties Kurt Coleman and Anderson Russell) and has several solid players up front.

Despite the hoopla over the signing of blue-chip quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who won’t be on campus until the middle of the summer, Boeckman is a lock to be the starter.

After a year in which he completed 64 percent of his passes for 25 TDs with 14 interceptions, Boeckman will be counted on to be in tune with the rest of the veterans around him on offense.

“Todd Boeckman’s got to make sure he and Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie and Jake Ballard, Chris Wells – whoever he throws it to – that those guys really grow in understanding,” Tressel said.

Even though Pryor won’t start, he may compete for playing time, and quickly.

“His ability to adjust to the system and the speed of the game will determine where he is in the mix,” Tressel said. “But I tell all the guys at every position, ‘Don’t come in thinking you’ll redshirt because if you can help this football team, let’s go.'”

Wells, who rushed for 1,609 yards as a sophomore last season, will have a tough act to follow. He went for 222 yards and both touchdowns in a 14-3 victory at rival Michigan which put the Buckeyes in their second consecutive BCS title game, then had 146 yards and a touchdown in the LSU defeat.

Wells is still wearing a cast from surgery this winter on his wrist and won’t face contact for most – if any – of the Buckeyes’ 15 workouts leading up to the annual spring game on April 19 at Ohio Stadium.

“In the live scrimmages for at least a couple of weeks he won’t be cleared to (get hit) because you wouldn’t want to risk it,” Tressel said.

Not everyone is a grizzled vet. Youngsters the coaching staff will be watching closely this spring include offensive lineman J.B. Shugarts, linebackers Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat, receiver Jake Stoneburner and lineman Mike Adams, all of whom are incoming freshmen already enrolled in classes.

Tressel said the clash with USC in Los Angeles, pitting two of the top teams in the country this fall, would likely kick off a 5 p.m. local time or 8 p.m. in Ohio.

That game is just one of the many carrots to put in front of a team, Tressel said.