Under-The-Radar Love

For the first time since 2001, the Ohio State football team was picked not to finish in the top two in the Big Ten by the conference media. Couple that with a preseason national ranking that seeems to fall between Nos. 10 and 15, and the result is a Buckeye team hungry to prove the experts wrong in 2007.

The "radar" can be a funny thing. Players and teams can be on it or under it, and movement between the two can be rapid and quite mysterious.

For example, take the Ohio State football team as it begins preparations for the 2007 season. A year ago, the Buckeyes were all over the radar, Ohio State scarlet dotting preseason predictions like the intense red hues that represent a severe thunderstorm on the Doppler.

Entering the year with a potent offense and a talented but raw defense, OSU started 2006 as the No. 1 team in the nation. As a result, the media glare was intense, and did nothing to subside as the Buckeyes rolled through a 12-game regular season that included wins against two No. 2-ranked teams in Texas and Michigan.

Then came the BCS National Championship Game. Favored OSU lost to Florida 41-14, and coupled with losing a number of productive seniors and three early entrants into the NFL Draft, the Buckeye players expected to enter '07 under the radar.

"We knew with the guys we lost and how we played in our last game, we knew we were probably going to be ranked around 10 to mid-teens," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said. "That's just the reality of the game."

And that's exactly where the Buckeyes begin 2007. In the recently published USA Today/Coaches' Poll, OSU checks in at 10th in the country. While the Associated Press poll is not yet out, a scan of preseason magazines shows OSU coming in between 10 and 15 in most polls. And for the first time since 2001, Ohio State was not picked to finish on the top two in the conference – the media put both Wisconsin and Michigan ahead of the Buckeyes.

Count junior cornerback Malcolm Jenkins as a Buckeye who is excited by the Buckeyes' switch from on to below the radar. The All-America candidate indicated that the offseason of questions has helped the Buckeyes form an attitude that they want to prove just how good they are.

"There's not as much hype around us and there was last year," he said. "I think it's also a good thing because now we can kind of grind. We're hunting everybody. We have something to prove to everybody."

Junior wide receiver Brian Robiskie, who will be counted on to help lead a position many think was weakened by the loss of Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Roy Hall, echoed Jenkins' statements.

"There's a sense of excitement," Robiskie said. "Everybody wants to show what they're capable of. Everybody wants a chance to get on the field and everybody wants to get a chance to play."

When the Buckeyes aren't embracing their ranking, they're ignoring it. Blessed with a senior's perspective, fullback Dionte Johnson said he's not too worried about what the experts have to say about Ohio State's chances in the upcoming season.

"I try to stay away from the rankings this year," Johnson said. "In years past I used to watch all that stuff and focus on it, but the great thing about football is you have to play every week. Nobody can take away what you do on Saturdays."

But while the Buckeye team as a whole has significantly less radar profile than it did a year ago at this time, a handful of players have seen their national profiles increase. At the head of that group is middle linebacker James Laurinaitis.

The Minnesota native entered 2006 as one of nine new starters on the defense and was just attempting to make a name for himself. That all changed with a standout game against Texas in which he forced a fumble and intercepted a pass in OSU's 24-7 win. By the end of the year, Laurinaitis had made 115 tackles, made four sacks, picked off five passes and forced three fumbles.

Those numbers earned Laurinaitis the Bronko Nagurski Award, awarded to the best defensive player in the country. Preseason All-America honors have rolled in, and Laurinaitis was one of a number of players featured on the cover of the throwback Street and Smith college football annual. Echoing past days, the cover photo shows Laurinaitis in a posed action shot wearing a helmet without a facemask and the tagline "Buckeye Warrior."

"It's been such a turnaround, a 180-degree change," Laurinaitis said of the different between 2006 and '07 camp. "Your head's going on a swivel and you don't expect all this. It's unbelievable, really, what's happened. You realize you have a long way to go still."

Laurinaitis' last sentence could apply to Ohio State as well. Ten spots up the polls might be difficult to make up, but the Buckeyes hope their man on the radar can put them right back on it.

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