In addition to the fact that the Buckeyes must replace 10 players who started in the Sugar Bowl win against Arkansas, the team finds itself precariously thin at a few positions until depth arrives this summer in the form of the 2011 recruiting class. Add in the fact that five players will join Tressel in watching the first five games of the season from the comfort of their own homes and it is clear that it will be anything but business as usual in the coming months.
"It'll be different," said Fickell, who was also promoted to assistant head coach. "That's why I (want) to state that we know whose team it is. It's our team. It's the seniors' team."
Even still, Fickell – who is also the team's linebackers coach – admitted to being surprised to look at the roster and not see starting mainstays Ross Homan, Brian Rolle and others on the depth chart. In his estimation, the Buckeyes must replace the most defensive firepower since the 2006 season, when the likes of James Laurinaitis, Malcolm Jenkins and Marcus Freeman firmly took over for a group led by A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Donte Whitner.
"That's the exciting time for us coaches," Fickell said. "For me, this is a much more exciting spring when you're not sure exactly what you're going to have when they walk out there. There's a lot of light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of kids and they're excited."
Four of OSU's five suspended players – Mike Adams, Dan Herron, DeVier Posey and Solomon Thomas – will go through spring drills as usual. Quarterback Terrelle Pryor, the fifth suspended member, continues to recover from offseason ankle surgery. Tressel said he hopes Pryor will be out of a walking boot within the next week or so.
"I don't know when he'll actually be able to move on the (ankle)," the coach said of Pryor. "He's got to do a great job of getting some throws anyway on his own."
Otherwise, the suspended players will be expected to assume big roles this spring.
"DeVier Posey, I don't know how many wideouts we have but not that many," Tressel said. "Boom Herron is a guy that you want out there getting reps to show people how you do reps. The beauty of spring practice is whether a guy's working with the first unit, the second unit, whatever it happens to be, everyone is getting all the reps, and that happens early in the preseason. The question becomes when you get into game-week preparations. (Then) the changes occur."
Throughout winter conditioning, Tressel said the leadership displayed by those five was inspirational as he dealt with his pending suspension.
"Just watching the way that they led, quite honestly I was amazed," he said. "If you ask our (coaches) … the guy at every position that you could point to as the leader was the guy that was going through the toughest time, which tells you a lot about their ability to lead," Tressel said. "That has certainly strengthened me and our staff and excites us about the fact that (Thursday) we begin that focus on these 2011 Buckeyes."
Although there are a number of players vying for the vacated spots at linebacker in particular, the same can not be said on the offensive line. There in the trenches the Buckeyes will go through spring with 10 total linemen, eight of whom are on scholarship including early enrollee Tommy Brown, who has just started classes. Three more freshmen linemen will arrive this summer.
Partially as a result, OSU's traditional spring game to close out the 15-day practice schedule will likely take on a different format this year. During both spring practice and fall camp, the Buckeyes engage in a jersey scrimmage that pits the offense against the defense while using a modified scoring system.
"I'm not sure that we could field two teams," Tressel said. "We have 10 offensive linemen and we don't know if any of them have sprained an ankle by the time we get to the spring game. It may have a different format."
In the past, the team's seniors led a draft of the underclassmen complete with trade requests. However, Tressel said annual feedback from those within the program has suggested that the limits placed upon players during the spring game did not result in an entirely beneficial practice.
"Sometimes when you draft up teams there are some mismatches in situations and then the coaches say, ‘You're only allowed to run these five plays and you can only play these three defenses,' " Tressel said. "They've never felt like we got the full use out of that practice No. 15. Some of their thoughts were to make it a little more competitive and perhaps have a jersey scrimmage to end the spring."
Even the helmets will be different. Wednesday, Tressel showed off a gray camouflage helmet the players will wear in honor of the military.
The final practice – spring game or not – will take place April 23. In addition, Tressel said practices might be shorter this spring in an effort to avoid costly injuries.
"A lot of people want to talk about spring practice as, ‘Who's going to move into this spot?' and ‘Who's going to be first string and who's going to be second string?' " Tressel said. "Spring practice is trying to figure out the personnel that we have and what we do best and then fit it into the evolution of where we've been and where we want to go."
One thing is certain: the path to get there will be unlike those the Buckeyes have taken since Tressel took over in 2001.