Returning nearly all key personnel from a team that advanced to the national championship game one season ago, Ohio State is seeking to further a streak of three consecutive Big Ten championships via some unconventional methods.
This time around, the Buckeyes boast 47 players on the roster who are in at least their fourth year in the program. As OSU kicks off spring practice March 27 and gears up for the annual Scarlet and Gray game April 19, it will be asking a little bit extra from its upperclassmen.
The learners must now become the teachers.
"Sometimes when you have veteran players … the thing that we don't want is anyone to come into spring practice and be feeling like, ‘Well, this is the same-old, same-old. I know what we do and here's what we'll do Monday and here's what we'll do Tuesday," OSU head coach Jim Tressel said. "We really want to challenge them mentally, challenge their knowledge of the game and challenge their ability to maybe teach the game."
In all, the Buckeyes lose just four starters from last season's team. Gone are offensive lineman Kirk Barton, defensive end Vernon Gholston, linebacker Larry Grant and fullback Dionte Johnson. It is quite a contrast from last spring, when Tressel and his coaching staff were facing a somewhat bare-looking cupboard with just 10 returning starters.
With the wealth of experience the Buckeyes welcome back, Tressel said he expects his team to be a smarter one than perhaps he has fielded in the past. That belief in part resulted in the desire to have his players take it upon themselves to bring along the new faces within the program a little bit more than they have been asked to do in the past.
"We want to make sure we challenge them," Tressel said. "We know a little bit more about what we think they can do, especially those guys who have been here quite some time, so we want to begin structuring things with that in mind, with what they've already demonstrated they are capable of doing."
The challenges to improve are different on offense and defense, Tressel said. The Buckeyes have a solid grasp on what they can do with the ball, but the defensive players are being challenged in a different manner.
"We really want to stretch our guys to understand concepts, to understand what might be the next step that people will attack you with and really be able to challenge them mentally," Tressel said. "We think that that's critical."
Tressel said he expects this spring to be different from a physical standpoint as well. The Buckeyes will "train through the spring from a strength standpoint," he said, owing to the timing of the OSU academic calendar as well as the lateness of the BCS National Championship. As a result, players have been working out on their own but haven't had as much time working with coaches overseeing them.
Tuesday marked the last day for speed coordinator Butch Reynolds, further adding to the changes in that department.
Despite a renewed effort on building strength, the overall spring will be less physical than in years past. One year ago, the Buckeyes had two all-out scrimmages and placed lots of new faces under stressful situations to see how they would react. This time around, Tressel said the coaches have a solid feel on how individual players can handle the physicality of their positions.
As a result, there is less of a need to put guys in position to get hurt, the head coach said.
Even the spring game itself might have a different look. Past years have seen the Buckeyes divide up into split squads and take on each other in a full simulation of a game, but this year might see OSU instead simulate specific game situations instead.
"Sometimes you wait and decide how much work you've gotten done and see if you need to make it a situational-type thing, but historically we've stuck with the game setting," Tressel said. "We'll cross that bridge as we get to it."
It's all part of the spring of 2008 for the Buckeyes, which is already off to a different start.
"We're going to ask a lot more of our guys mentally, maybe ask a little bit more of them physically from a strength standpoint and continue to try to evolve," Tressel said. "We're looking forward to a little bit different type of spring that we think will be good for our guys.
"If you do the same-old, same-old, you run the risk of losing your edge. I hope that the different way we approach this spring will be invigorating and exciting."