The Buckeyes' Spring Game was a good day to be a wideout whose name started with the letter ‘H' – at least according to the unofficial box score. Roy Hall led the Gray squad with five receptions and 66 yards; Brian Hartline led the Scarlet with seven catches and 88 yards.
Ironically, Hartline and Hall, polar opposites in nearly every visible way, are battling (along with Brian Robiskie) for the coveted third receiver role in this offense. Hall is the cagey veteran who resembles a steamroller after years in the weight room. Hartline is the excited underclassman who is still lean enough to look like the youth that he is. Hall, no stranger to big games or catches, leaned back and casually handled the post game interviews as if he were holding court. Hartline talked excitedly; he was almost giddy with his day as he considered the possibilities of earning playing time.
"There were what, 60,000 plus out there?" Hartline observed. "You never know who is out there. Besides just the coaches and everybody else, this is almost a business. I'm selling myself. I kind of treat these things…you want to treat this almost as an interview I guess. You show them what you have, you give them all the situations, and they will go back and review it and decide if you are the guy. That is kind of how I have to treat it. I show them what I have and leave the rest up to the coaches."
Even if the coaches somehow missed it, Hall noticed, admitting he knows exactly how the younger players are thinking. He knows their goal is to unseat the senior and steal his playing time away – the playing time he has been trying to claim for four years.
"Tremendously," he answered when asked if the young wideouts were pressuring him to perform at a higher level. "You saw them out there. Hartline was out there ballin'. Robiskie was ballin'. They are doing big things, and I have to continue doing what I am doing. I think as a unit we have to go five or six deep. We have consistency throughout all of those guys, and we looked good all spring."
This is Hall's last chance at Ohio State. It is the proverbial ‘time to step up' for a Jim Tressel coached player. Seniors know to have a great year in their final season, they must lead. They must step forward and stand out.
"I heard it at the beginning of spring ball," Hall said of the clock ticking down in his head. "I knew after the first week, after the first two or three practices, it was flying by like that. I'm like, the next thing you know it is going to be fall camp. So, you just have to live it up because you never know. Guys get hurt; you might not make it through camp so you just have to go out and try to take every practice as your last and make big things happen."
He elaborated, "It is funny. When guys become seniors, all of a sudden something happens where you just – your senior year you have to do good. You have to work hard. You have to work harder the next day. You have to give it up for your team. You know at the end of the day, at the end of the season you are not going to be able to do it again. Everybody is going to go their different directions, and you have to be able to do what you can right now to help the team as much as possible. I don't want to be in the situation where I am caught (saying), ‘I should have done this, I could have practiced harder all week.' I'm trying to give it my all, and it's making me better as a player and as a person."
Hall isn't the same player as in years past; he is beginning to assert himself. With his attitude and without the twin barriers and NFL receivers of Michael Jenkins and Santonio Holmes locking down his position, the playing time in front of him is like waving a red flag in front of an angry bull.
Coach Tressel noticed, saying, "Roy has had a lot more opportunities (now). I think he really, the last five practices, expressed himself a lot more confidently. I thought his last five were real positive for us."
What Tressel is seeing is Hall's attempt to be more consistent. Hall knows and admits a receiver's job first and foremost is to be consistent as a football player. Athletes are a dime a dozen but great receivers can block, catch, run the right route, and lead their teammates on every down. Not only that, but they lead off the field – in the classroom and weight room and in watching film.
Not surprisingly, like most Buckeye seniors the past four years, Hall gets it.
"It is a different scenario because I was that young guy a couple, two-three years ago," Hall said. "I mean I know what they are going through so my job, just like the guys who were ahead of me, is to make sure I do things the right way. I have to lead them."
The problem of course is that he is treading shark infested waters, and for all that he is their leader, the young receivers smell chum. They know Hall has yet to lock down the third wide receiver slot, and they are gunning for it.
"I want them to play – the better they are the better I am going to be," he said. "You know what I am saying? If a guy steps up to the point where he is better than me, I'm not going to knock him for it. Those young guys are hungry, but then I'm a veteran. I'm hungry too."
Hall is hungry.
He is the man from Survivor who would trade his right arm for a steak and that steak is a chance to play extensively this fall, but he recognizes there is a possibility the young pups could win the job, unseat him, and leave him on the bench for the bulk of his final season as a Buckeye. For all his cravings, he is philosophical about that scenario.
He pointed out, "You have Bam Childress and a name I am going to throw out there – he didn't even really play here – Maurice Lee. Maurice Lee is playing in the Arena League now and Bam was playing for the Patriots. You have to keep working no matter what. You might get a shot, and you might not so if I have a shot I am going to take advantage of it, and if I never got my shot I am going to still work hard like I am going to get it. You can always get on somewhere; you just have to keep working hard."
So, Hall is working hard this summer, as are Hartline and Robiskie.
He wants to ensure he doesn't drop below his target weight of 230-plus. He wants to lift, make sure he doesn't fall behind in summer conditioning, and he wants to enhance his current gifts.
Hall said, "I don't think I need to add anything but just continue to heighten it and strengthen those things I have now. I going to get stronger, I am going to get faster, I am going to bigger, I'm going to catch the ball better. I'm not going to try and get out of my realm and try to do something I can't do. I know my strengths, and I know my weaknesses, and I'm going to definitely master my strengths and better my weaknesses."
What is his greatest strength? What gift or gifts will he enhance?
Hall brings a physical dimension to the wide receivers as a group. A wide receiver in a tight end's body, he catches the ball and charges down the field toward opposing defensive backs. He bowls into them as they were the unfortunate Romans and he is Hadrian's elephants. Bodies go flying in every direction as Hall pinballs off of would be tacklers for additional yardage.
"I have to use my size and strength to my advantage," he admits. "I watch guys like Terrell Owens and David Boston when he was healthy and how those guys run through, run past, and run over defenders. I try and do that as much as I can when I get an opportunity."
He loves flattening a defender almost as much as getting a touchdown.
"I think I enjoy it just as much," Hall said. "I mean, you listen (and) sometimes you can hear the crowd. When you see people run people over, it is exciting. It is physical. Hopefully I can get one of those opportunities this year to run people over."
Meanwhile, Hartline admits he has much to learn. He wants to play and is going to make every effort to play this season, but he isn't polished, and he isn't the physical presence he would like to be.
Hartline is spending his summer improving on all of the small things and especially his blocking: "That's big with a receiver. Sometimes that is forgotten about. (I have to improve on) blocking and getting better at the general things; just keep working to the point where you are good at what you do to make it easier on yourself to where it comes naturally. You don't have to think about it."
So who will play? Who will claim the third slot left vacant by Holmes' departure for NFL millions?
Clearly the inside track belongs to Hall, but this is at least a two and possibly a three horse race. Any misstep will result in one falling behind, while at least one of them will try to make a run down the stretch.
This competition serves to make the already dangerous offense that much better.
"I think it's great," opined Hartline. "We were just talking about (having) a lot of play makers. You can't get so caught up sometimes about yourself and how you want to be this year and how you want to play because you really have to put the team before yourself if you want to be a great team."
More than anything, this is something they, the coaches, and the fans can all