Throughout the spring, there were visions of Ohio State using a new "Pony" offense that featured versatile tailback Brandon Saine lining up in some different positions, most of all fullback. After all, the 6-1, 217-pounder is a team player who can block, catch passes, carry the ball and, for all we know, distribute Gatorade on the sideline with equal skill.
Saine was used in that type of role against LSU in the BCS title game with great success. Lined up on a wing during the first quarter, Saine snuck out of the backfield and caught a 44-yard pass that led to a field goal. He finished the day with three catches for 69 yards and looked primed to see his role expand in 2008.
Instead, reality checked in. Saine suffered a leg injury that has left him sidelined at times throughout camp. Though he recently returned to full-go in practice, just how many of the new, varied Ohio State offensive ideas involving the Piqua, Ohio, native will be available during the beginning of the season remains in question.
"It hurts," running backs coach Dick Tressel said. "I don't know how much it will hurt. I think it hurts you as an athlete to feel a little unprepared."
That's not to say the team expects Saine to be handicapped physically once he hits the field. Instead, the biggest concern is about the number of reps he missed and how that will affect his sharpness.
"Brandon Saine, I think, will be 100 percent on the health side," Tressel said, "but he won't be 100 percent on the preparation that goes along with being out there sloshing around, running the plays, having the ball in your hands and reacting to the speed that's on the field."
Of course, speed has never been a concern for Saine, who set the state's high school 100-meter dash record at the 2006 meet his junior year when he crossed the line in 10.38 seconds. The next fall, he further cemented his legend in the Ohio prep ranks when he was named the state's Mr. Football as he led Piqua to a Division II state title while racking up 1,895 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground.
That wasn't all Saine did as an Indian. He also developed a reputation as an excellent kick return man and spent some time lined up as a slot receiver as well. During his senior campaign, he caught 30 passes for 412 yards in the dual-threat role.
The skills evidenced while compiling those numbers had Tressel's mouth watering on the team's media day in early August before Saine suffered his injury setback.
"He can run fast and he can catch, so he can play a little receiver, but he's tough enough to block inside and run inside," the running backs coach said. "He's got a great variety of skills, and he's a pretty think, solid guy, so he could easily be a wild card.
"He could line up anywhere. He really could. You wouldn't want him to be a fullback guy every play. You don't want him to do that, but it's something he can do."
Hearing words like that would likely bring a smile to the sophomore's face.
"I'm excited if the coaches are willing to get me the ball in different ways," Saine said on media day. "I want to be ready when they need me, so I'm going to work as hard as I can to do that. It's really humbling and makes me realize that the coaches really trust me."
He began to earn that trust last year when he flashed enough skill during camp to get on the field. He ran for 42 yards on 10 carries in the first game against Youngstown State, then added a touchdown catch a week later against Akron and a 37-yard TD scamper the week after that as time expired against Washington to finish the contest against the Huskies with nine carries for 83 yards.
At that point, he had run for 153 yards on 28 carries (5.5 yards per carry), but a meniscus injury cropped up after that game that needed surgery, sidelining him from two straight games and severely curtailing his development. He finished with 267 yards and two touchdowns on 60 carries and caught nine passes for 91 yards.
At media day, he admitted that the injury held him back a bit during the final half of his freshman campaign.
"I was kind of timid coming back," he said. "I was cautious about the knee. Now that it's fully healthy, there's nothing to hold me back."
Unfortunately for Saine, that proved to be wishful thinking because of the most recent injury that popped up to curb his practice time. The good news is that Tressel doesn't feel that his young pupil will be all that limited for all that long.
"He'll get back into it because he's studied, he's been with us," Tressel said. "We'll continue to have that attitude that he has multiple skills and multiple abilities, and we'll have him doing all of those things as soon as we can. I think that the timetable is going to be one that, ‘Hey, just do it as fast as you can.' "