Defensive Notes: One Last Go For Hawk, Salley

Saturday's tilt with Northwestern will mark the final game in Ohio Stadium for 16 Ohio State seniors, including defensive captains AJ Hawk and Nate Salley. We spoke with Hawk and Salley this week, who reflected on their OSU careers up to this point and looked ahead to this week's matchup with Northwestern.

AJ Hawk is not exactly the sentimental type.

The Butkus Award finalist will play his final game in Ohio Stadium Saturday against Northwestern (noon, ABC). He knows it's going to be a memorable Senior Day, but says he hasn't given it too much thought.

"Not really," Hawk said. "I haven't given it too much just because… people are going to have all kinds of emotions, everyone on this team will, because we've had such good times here. But, it makes it a little different because we know we're playing a great team against Northwestern, and then we have another game going up to Michigan.

"So, it's my last game in the ‘Shoe and that's going to be really different because time has flown since I've been here, but I don't know. It's hard to tell you exactly how I'm going to feel until I get there."

Hawk leads the Buckeyes with 94 tackles (52 solo) and 11 tackles-for-loss. He also has 6.5 sacks, one interception and one fumble recovery. He is probably the favorite to win the Butkus over fellow finalists Paul Posluszny from Penn State and DeMeco Ryans Alabama, but Hawk couldn't care less about personal awards.

He's just concerned with winning his final home game in college and was asked what he will miss most about OSU.

"I think just being around the players," he said. "I think a lot of guys would tell you that. Ohio State is special place, with the alumni and everyone that's came before you and the tradition we've had here. So, I think the biggest thing I'll miss is just being around the other players on the team because we get along so well and I think we play really well together. You can't duplicate that anywhere. They always say, ‘Wherever you go, you're never going to find a team like you have here and the buddies you came in with here.' So, that's what I think is going to be the hardest thing to miss and to find somewhere else.

"I'll miss everything, I guess. The whole atmosphere of before the game, you know, you're in the hotel room and you look outside and you see, when you wake up at 6:30 in the morning, there's already tons of people already out there getting ready for the game. Just the whole atmosphere of going to Skull Session and things like that. Warm-ups, just everything. The whole stadium, there's always a special feel every time you get to a game and you can't get that anywhere else. I don't think you would get that anywhere else, whatever school you go to. I know that I've been lucky to play here and I'm going to make sure at least Saturday I'm going to soak it all in."

Hawk was jokingly asked if he's planning on carving his name into a wall at the Blackwell Hotel.

"No, I'm not going to do anything special like that," he said. "But I think I'll just enjoy being around the guys and being around my coaches and players. And staying in the Blackwell one last time because I probably won't have enough money to stay there again. (Reporters didn't buy that last comment, throwing some, "Yeah rights" at the All-American linebacker. Hawk gave a sheepish grin, realizing it was common knowledge he will likely be a multi-millionaire at this time next year.)

"No, it will be sad obviously and I'm trying to talk to my mom and stuff – she's probably been crying for sixth months thinking of this game. It's going to be emotional and will be different I think, but that's what happens. You only get four years here and you try to make the best of it."

Hawk was asked to name his favorite game thus far in his OSU career.

"I think the easy one that anyone will tell you is winning the national championship in my freshman year over Miami (31-24 in double-overtime in the Fiesta Bowl)," he said. "But it's hard to narrow it down to just one. There's so many different games that I've been a part of that I can't name just one. The N.C. State game in triple-overtime was a huge win for us (44-38 in 2003). Being Michigan last year (37-21) after the type of season we had was a big win also. And just stuff like that. I can't narrow it down to just one game because there's so many different things that go into that and there's so many hard games that we've played that we've come out on top."

You probably won't catch Hawk shedding a tear on Saturday, but the same cannot be said for the Buckeyes' other defensive captain.

"I probably will," safety Nate Salley said. "I know won't be the only one, but I know I'll definitely be one of those guys. I get like that sometimes. I'm an emotional dude; I've always been like that. Even in my last game in high school I was the same way. And we had our little banquet and I was the same way. That's just how I am.

"I think just looking back at the opportunities I've had to be here and all the experiences – good and bad – that I've had here, you look back on that and you realize just how fast they've gone and it just kind of hits you. And anytime you get emotional is because you realize that you've been through so much and you've grown so much during a certain period of time and it's a great experience. You're just thankful. It's tears of joy, not really said. Just tears of joy and you're happy."

Salley was asked what he's going to miss the most about being around Columbus and OSU's campus.

"Everything," he said. "Just my teammates, going out here to practice every day, having the type of camaraderie that we have here. Just everything. Seeing guys come back. Guys that I've played with go to the league (NFL) and to be able to watch them on TV and they come back and they show you love every time they get a chance to. Just being around the great fans, having them follow us everywhere we go and show us a lot of love, no matter what was going on while I've been here. That's been great. Having my family be able to come up and share this experience with me and have a lot of fun with it, being that I'm one of the first people in my family to even go through something like this. It's been a great experience for me."

That's right. Salley's mother – Pat Salley – moved from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Columbus this summer and shares an apartment with her son.

"My mom moved up with me and my dad (Nate Salley Sr.) comes up every weekend," Salley said. "My mom lives with me."

So how has that been? A 21-year old bachelor/star athlete living with his mom?

"It's been going real well," said Salley, a self-described mama's boy. "She spoils me a lot. She's always cooking and trying to clean stuff. I have to tell her not to do so much. She's having a lot of fun up here. That's the main reason I want her to do it because it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing and she just wants to enjoy this. I'm her baby, I'm the youngest child and she wanted to enjoy this whole experience because you never know when something like this will come around, if it ever does. So, it's been a lot of fun. She's enjoyed it a lot and we're very cool. We're very close, so it's not like she's cutting into my space or anything like that."

What about when friends come over?

"I don't have too many people over, but usually Donte (Whitner) comes over or something," Salley said. "So, they just chill and my mom probably goes into the room, or she might even chill with us. She don't really care."

Mrs. Salley can be found watching a lot of ESPN when she's not cooking and cleaning for her son.

"Yeah, she probably watches more sports than I do," Salley said. "It was funny, when I first started playing she hated watching sports and whenever I was watching a game she was like, ‘Go to your room.' Now, she's watching football, basketball, baseball, golf, whatever, all kinds of stuff. She just loves sports now and she's trying to get my nieces and nephews to play something now. She's a fanatic."

Salley didn't hesitate when asked to reveal his most memorable moment at Ohio State at this late stage of his career.

"National championship, got to be," he said. "That was great, being able to win that. And as the years have gone by and we see just how hard it is to actually win one, I've grown to be more proud of that, to be more grateful for having that. Those come around probably once in a lifetime and to be able to say I was a part of a national championship team and to now be a part of this team and hopefully be Big Ten champs, that would be great to end on that note."

But the Buckeyes will always wonder what could have been. Narrow losses to Texas and Penn State could have gone either way, especially the tussle with the Longhorns. A win in either of those games and OSU would be in the hunt for the national championship.

"Yeah, I was just talking to Chris Gamble the other night and he was talking about the Texas game still just like it happened last week," Salley said. "A lot of people are talking about that, but we try and let that go, at least for now, because there's nothing we can do about it now. I believe we played them very hard. It was a very good game and they came out with the victory. So, it was kind of tough to take, but you've got to move on. "We definitely believe that we could be up there with the elite teams in the nation, take away a few plays or whatever. But, that's how it goes sometimes and that's where we are right now."

One of the emerging stars on the defense this season is junior safety Donte Whitner. Salley has been proud of his progress.

"He's playing great. I believe he's playing great," Salley said. "You turn on the film and he barely makes any mistakes out there on the field. He's been very mistake-free and he's taken advantage of pretty much all of his opportunities to make big plays and that's huge. I believe he's had a great year. If you watch the film on him last year, and definitely his freshman year, you see a huge jump. This year, he's done a great job and I take my hat of to him."

Whitner has a passion for the game and his play shows it.

"He just loves it," Salley said. "He seems way more loose now, having a lot more fun. He's not very uptight, but he's still in watching film just as much or more than anybody. Studying the game as much as anybody. I believe that is the main thing with him is that he relaxed. He doesn't feel that he's fighting for a spot anymore. He's more calm and playing ball and making plays."

Salley also addressed the pending decision from junior cornerback Ashton Youboty. Will he stay, or go?

When asked after the Illinois game last Saturday, Youboty said, "Ask Nate Salley. He's been the one giving me advice on that."

So, we did.

"I don't know. That's on Ashton," Salley said. "I don't know, he's been having a pretty good year and he's a great corner, so you never really know. He's good enough to go if he wants to, but that's all on him. That's something that kind of comes over you. We'll see around bowl time if he's still feeling that way. Sometimes you just get the feeling that, ‘Hey, I want to be a senior. I want to try and be a captain and lead this team to another great year.' But, I don't know."

Is Salley giving Youboty any specific advice?

"I just tell him you have to do whatever you feel is right in your heart," Salley said. "If you have the opportunity to go out and maybe go to the league, you can't tell a guy not to if he has a good opportunity to. At the same time, I tell him the same thing Will Allen told me. He was like, ‘Just enjoy it man.' Because the league is not very similar to college ball. There's not that camaraderie. It's not a huge focus on the team like it is here. He was like, ‘Enjoy it man. Go out and have fun your senior year and enjoy it because it goes by fast.' So, that's what I've done and I don't really know (Youboty's) exact plans, but I just tell him to follow his heart and do whatever he feels is right."

Salley never strongly considered turning pro last year, but admits it did run through his mind.

"People always talk and stuff, but I didn't really think about it too much," he said. "I was one of those guys, I wanted to be a captain, I wanted to try be able to be a senior leader on this team. It definitely wasn't the time for me to start thinking like that."

Ready for the Wildcats

Hawk and Salley know it will be a tough go against Northwestern, ranked as the No. 7 total offense in the country, averaging 508.1 yards per game.

The Buckeyes counter with the No. 7 total defense in the country, surrendering 280.2 yards a game.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Brett Basenez is enjoying a tremendous season for the Wildcats. He has thrown for 2,845 yards with 16 touchdowns and five interceptions, and has added 320 rushing yards and five scores.

But leading the ground attack for Northwestern is freshman Tyrell Sutton, the reigning Ohio Mr. Football from Akron Hoban.

Sutton has amassed 1,085 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns and seems to be a perfect fit in Northwestern's shotgun-spread offense.

"They can do everything," Hawk said. "They have a great tailback now that can run the ball and their quarterback is unbelievable. He's played great this whole year and that's why he's a Heisman candidate. So, we've faced him before and we know what he's capable of. Obviously last year we went there and they beat us (33-27 in overtime). So, I think they have a great passing attack and when they can run the ball like they can it makes them really hard to stop. I think we have to play good fundamental defense like I say every week, but you've got to do things to disrupt them and get pressure on the quarterback."

Hawk thinks that Basenez is one of the finest quarterbacks he's faced, and he's faced a lot of good ones.

"He's right up there with the best in the country I think," Hawk said. "He really has control of the offense and knows what he's doing. He can tuck it down and run when he needs to, and he's got a great arm. He always makes something happen. If one guy makes a little mistake, he's going to find the open receiver and he's done that all year and you've seen him do it against us the last couple years. So, we know what he's capable of and he's one of the best quarterbacks in the country. And that's why we have to do things and try and mix it up a little Saturday so he can't play as well as he has been."

No one has forgotten about last year's game, but OSU's players aren't going to use it for motivation. They already have plenty of incentive on the table.

"I don't know if we really think about it too much," Hawk said. "We've watched the film to see what we did wrong. Anytime you lose a game like that in overtime, it's tough to take. It will be in the back of our mind, but it's not really anything that we're dwelling on. But we know if we play like that again we'll get beat, so we have to make sure we come out and don't do that."

The Buckeyes are playing their best football of the year right now. In fact, they look like a top five team – which is exactly where they would be if they would have taken care of business against Texas or Penn State.

"We're not sitting here saying, ‘What if?'" Hawk said. "Because if you did that you'd be miserable. Your whole college career you could say, ‘What if I made this tackle? What if I did this? What if something would have happened here and we wouldn't have had a pass interference call?' If you sit there and dwell on that stuff, it will kill you. So no, we're not sitting here saying, ‘What if?' We're just making sure we come out and play well every week. We always say it's a game of inches and for some reason or not we have two losses. We don't know exactly why, but sometimes things just don't happen the way you want them to. And that's tough and that's what college football is all about."

But Hawk is pleased that OSU seems to be peaking at the right time.

"Yeah, it's good, you always want to come out and play well in November as (head coach Jim) Tressel always says," he said. "So, we like to try and peak towards the end and the last couple years I think we've done a decent job of doing that and we just have to make sure we keep that going. And with a team like Northwestern you have to be at your best or you'll get beat."

Salley believes that Northwestern (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) is one of the best offenses OSU (7-2, 5-1) has faced this season.

"Oh, they're very dangerous," Salley said. "They like to spread it out. Most of their receivers are very dangerous and they have a very good quarterback. Basenez has been there for a while and he's a very accurate guy. They are pretty scary to see on film and see what they're capable of doing, but we just have to handle our business."

Hawk downplayed it, but last year's loss to the Wildcats is still fresh in Salley's mind.

"That hurt," he said. "That was the first time we had lost to them since (1971). But they've been getting better as the years have gone on. That was a very tough loss because that was our first loss of the year and we had dreams of being national champs and we were 3-0 and we had a bye week. And we went in there and kind of messed it up. They played a great game. Can't take anything away from them. They came to play and we definitely have to do that this week. We have to come and play a great game."

Northwestern "dinked and dunked" OSU to death last year. The Buckeyes were content to play a soft zone, and Basenez lit them up with quick passes out of the gun.

And making matters worse, the Wildcats were able to turn some of those short routes into big gains.

"We just didn't tackle well," Salley said. "I don't know that it was all about him (Basenez) because a lot times we just missed tackles in space. He made a lot of quick curls and they did a lot of screens and bubbles to their receivers and we just didn't make tackles and we didn't fill our gaps the way we needed to. So, I believe that was the main thing last year that we touched on in every meeting is that, ‘We need to tackle better.' And I believe from that point on we tackled much better throughout the rest of the year."

Salley is expecting to see a similar scheme from Basenez and the Wildcats this year. A steady diet of screens, slants and curls.

"Yeah, most definitely," he said. "I believe they have a similar scheme. They don't seem like they've done it as much, but you never know. You never know how they might get against us. They've done a great job this year."

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