Last year, Santonio Holmes found out that Christmas was for football.
After all, the Buckeyes were playing in the Dec. 29 Alamo Bowl in San Antonio, Texas. Accordingly, the team members spent Christmas in Texas instead of back at home with their families.
That was particularly hard on Holmes, who had to leave his two young sons, Santonio III and Nicori, back home in Florida.
"It hurt last year when I had to leave on the 24th and we had to play a couple days after Christmas," Holmes said of last year's bowl regimen. "I talked to them every day on the phone, but I was upset about that. I know on Christmas day last year we had a good day of practice. Then, I went back to the hotel and relaxed and I got on the phone.
"This year, I want to spend a lot of time with kids. I want to take full advantage this year. I didn't ask for anything this year but time with my kids."
When asked if he planned to work out over the break, Holmes replied, "The only working out I do is lifting up those hands to my face (to eat). I look forward to eating. It's great to have a home cooked meal and spend time with my family. Picking up the kids here and there is the only working out I do."
Of course, Holmes played a big role in making sure the Buckeyes had this Christmas off. He had 10 touchdowns among his 48 catches this year as OSU capped a 9-2 regular season and shared the Big Ten title with Penn State at 7-1. The fourth-ranked Buckeyes will convene in Arizona Monday in preparation for the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl against No. 5 Notre Dame (5 p.m., ABC).
"I think I played pretty well," Holmes said of his junior season, when he was named a first-team All-Big Ten pick. "You always think you can do more, but I just wanted to do whatever was needed for the team to win this year. I tried to make big plays when they came my way, but I also took a lot of pride in my blocking and just being an all-around football player."
Ohio State was ranked No. 4 when it hosted No. 2 Texas in a Sept. 10 showdown. The Longhorns prevailed that night 25-22. OSU then dropped a 17-10 decision at Penn State on Oct. 8 and fell to 3-2 overall.
The Buckeyes could have packed it in at that point. But Holmes is proud of the fact that OSU reeled off six straight wins to – coincidentally – get back to No. 4 in the national polls and earn a spot in a BCS bowl game.
"In a way, it shows the character of this team," Holmes said. "After losing our first game, we just said we have a whole lot more games to play. We needed to finish the season strong and get a chance at a BCS game. I just think the guys in there stuck together and competed.
"It turned around the day after the Penn State game. Everybody had to come back with their heads down and get ready for another game. We had to check ourselves whether we'll finish the season strong or give up. Our guys stuck together and kept fighting. We pulled out a chance for a BCS bowl game."
"To be honest with you, I think we have one of the best receiving corps in the country," Holmes said. "The way our guys have been playing all season and maturing a lot, being the leader of those guys it takes a toll on you. You have to step up when it's time to. Those guys depend on you for so much. By being a leader, I think I've taught those guys a lot.
"(Receivers coach Darrell) Hazell has been around the game a long time. He has helped us out a lot. He has molded us into great receivers. I commend him for what he has done for us."
Ginn, in particular, blossomed this year with 43 catches.
"A lot of teams don't double team me as much now because we have two guys that can stretch the field and a running back (Antonio Pittman) that can really hurt you," Holmes said. "Teams have been kicking away from Ted, not giving him an opportunity. He's matured a lot. He started develop where he didn't have to make something happen every time he touches the ball. Just get a first down or 15, 20 yards here or there. He learned that."
Of course, the receivers also benefited from the improved play of quarterback Troy Smith.
"Troy has matured a whole lot," Holmes said. "The things he's done for the program now are unbelievable. We love him around here. He's going to stick around for another year and be the vocal leader of this team. He's been doing a lot of great things for this program."
Smith is on record as saying he plans to lobby his close friend, Holmes, to come back for his senior year in 2006. But Holmes has the option of entering the NFL draft and indications seem strong he will do just that after the Fiesta Bowl.
When asked if the bowl game would be his final game as a Buckeye, Holmes said, "That is a possibility."
"I just want to feel comfortable with making that next step," he added. "I'm also dealing with a lot of family issues outside football. I just have to put all of that in the evaluation and go from there. It's my decision. No one is helping me make this decision. It's my decision on what I should do."
Despite having two sons, Holmes said there is no overt pressure for him to leave for the pros.
"I can still come back for another year and my family will stick behind me 100 percent," he said. "Whatever I do, they'll be there. I have a chance to finish my education here. I'm not going to let that slip away. I've got about 45 hours to finish up."
But it is also clear that Holmes sees himself as a pro-caliber wide receiver.
"That's why I came here," he admitted. "There are so many guys who made a legacy here and in the NFL. I just wanted to be a part of that."
OSU coach Jim Tressel typically advises his players if they are sure they will be a first-round pick they should strongly consider making the jump. TFYDraftPreview.com's Tony Pauline told Bucknuts last week that Holmes projects, likely, somewhere in the top 45 picks of the draft.
"If it looks like I'm a first-round pick, I gotta go," Holmes said. "There is no doubt. But at the same time, I'd like to see where I'm projected to go. Not just being a first-round pick. I don't want to be a first-round pick at No. 20, 25 or 30. I haven't looked at one of (the projections) since the season started."
The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15. Players have 72 hours after that to change their minds if they have not taken money from an agent.
"Maybe the decision will be made after the bowl game, whether I leave or stay," Holmes said.
Some are caught up in the history of the Ohio State-Notre Dame rivalry. Uh, don't count Holmes in that crowd.
"It means nothing to me," Holmes said. "It's another game we have to go out there and play. We have an opportunity to go out and be 4-0 in bowl games. We want to make the best of that opportunity. We want to keep that streak alive."
But Holmes does have respect for the Notre Dame football team he and his teammates will face.
"That's what you come to Ohio State for to play in those type games," he said. "They like to pass the ball and they are very explosive. Comparing myself to those receivers, they have great receivers and we do, too. This is just going to be a dogfight the whole game.
"It's going to be a great game against those guys. Just from watching them on film, they have some fast guys in their secondary. They can cover pretty good. The safety (Tom Zbikowski) was a third-team All-American. They're going to come out ready to go."
Holmes hopes the Fiesta Bowl becomes an offensive shootout.
"I'm hoping it's wide open and that we'll throw the ball 60 or 70 times a game," he said. "We'll have to leave it up to the Coach and what they're doing defensively and go from there."
Holmes talked about the keys to bowl preparation.
"The main thing you have to worry about is who is going to stay focused," he said. "How much film are you going to put in and how much preparation are you going to do. I feel the more you learn, the better you'll be.
"The time you have to practice you need to be prepared and go out and give 100 percent. You just work hard."
Ohio State has never won four straight bowl games – let alone done it in four straight years, as the Buckeyes have a chance to. Plus, the seniors have a chance to join the seniors from the 1998 season in posting 43 career victories – the most in any four-year stretch in school history.
"Yeah, we are aware of it," Holmes said. "But that's not something that we're looking forward to. We're just focused on beating those guys when we step out on the football field."
Climbing The Charts
Holmes has enjoyed a fine 2-1/2 year career as a starter for the Buckeyes.
The Belle Glade, Fla., native stands third on OSU's career touchdown receiving list with 24. He trails two pretty good players in David Boston (34) and Cris Carter (27). He is fifth on the school's career reception list with 136 catches and sixth in receiving yardage at 2,171 yards.
He reflected on his "coming out party" against Indiana in 2003, when starter Drew Carter went down with a knee injury. Holmes stepped immediately into the void and had six catches for 153 yards and two touchdowns. He hasn't come out of the lineup since.
"It was a time that I was very shocked to be called on at the time," Holmes said. "When Drew went down, my first instinct was that our coaches were probably going to call on John Hollins. And Coach (Joe) Daniels called down on the headset and asked me to get on and he said, ‘Tone, you have to go fill in for Drew,' and my heart just started pounding.
"I was thinking, ‘Man, I'm going to get a chance to play. Here it is the (eighth) game of the season and I haven't really played that much. But here is (Daniels) wanting me to fill in and be a starting receiver now.' But I was ready for it, no doubt. Being a high school player and loving to play under the lights and having the confidence in myself that I can get the job done, I was ready. I was ready for that game."
Prior to that Indiana game, did Holmes think his opportunity was ever going to come in 2003?
"Not at all," he said. "I thought I wouldn't play much that year and that was two years gone. I was just ready to prepare for the next three years."
Holmes ended up catching 32 passes for 549 yards (team-best 17.2 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns that year. He then had 55 catches for 769 yards and seven scores last year.
Holmes missed time in the spring with an ankle injury, then suffered a foot injury in preseason camp."During the season, it bothered me about 65 percent of the time," Holmes said. "It happened in camp and carried into the season. But being around Coach Hazell, he motivates you. You just have to go and go and go."
Here are more comments on what Holmes brought to the table this year:
* Roy Hall, who backs up Holmes at split end --"'Tone is a great receiver. I'm behind him and with him all the time. We came in together, so everything he knows, I know. Everything he can do, I think I can do. But he's the guy right now in a position to make plays."
* Ginn -- "He's been playing receiver all his life. From a guy like me coming from DB/QB standpoint to a receiver, in high school I would just catch the ball and get upfield. But here, there's so much you have to do and learn and Santonio knows all that because he's been playing receiver all his life.
"He had a sprained foot. To come back off that and play the whole year, that just shows how much heart and character he has."
* Tressel -- "Our receivers make big plays. They work hard at getting better. I think Santonio Holmes is one of the best in the country. If there are many better than him, I would be surprised. They love blocking for the run. They study the film. My comfort level for our receivers is pretty good."