Last season, the Ohio State football team had a number of built-in leaders who had already been through the rigors of a Big Ten season in addition to two national championship games. A senior class that boasted 28 players was captained by some of the most accomplished names in OSU history.
When head coach Jim Tressel needed a player to step up and be a leader, he had three-time all-Big Ten honorees Malcolm Jenkins and James Laurinaitis to call on. Or fifth-year senior Marcus Freeman. Or (essentially) sixth-year quarterback Todd Boeckman.
That group of seniors had held onto the leadership reins for the past two seasons owing partly to a 2007 senior class that totaled five players on scholarship including former walk-on Trever Robinson. It all added up to an entrenched group of leaders who knew how to live in the spotlight and be the face of the team.
But now that group is gone, and stepping into the void are a number of faces – some new, some old.
"I think change is exciting for everyone," Tressel said. "Not that you'd ever say, ‘Boy, it's exciting that James Laurinaitis and Malcolm Jenkins aren't here.' It's not that. There's a new energy when someone else is handed the torch. Let's see how they do."
The dynamics of the 2009 Buckeyes paint a team that could derive leadership from two groups. First up is the obvious choice: the senior class. This year's team boasts 14 seniors on scholarship including safety Kurt Coleman.
"The leadership definitely starts with the senior class," Coleman said. "The sophomore class, they're coming along but there are so many things you need to experience. It definitely starts with the senior class and we feel like this is our team. We want this team to be the best. We want to leave the legacy."
But as Coleman pointed out, there is that sophomore class to be reckoned with. After entering OSU as one of the top recruiting classes in the country for 2008, this tight-knit group immediately set its sights on winning not just one but several national championships and said as such on National Signing Day.
Last season, then-freshmen Terrelle Pryor and Michael Brewster were the two who carved out starting roles. Pryor's ascension to the starting quarterback role caused some controversy within the locker room as he unseated Boeckman, a team captain. Now, with so much playing time up for grabs, a number of Pryor's classmates are itching to get into the action.
Coleman views the situation as a good one.
"You never want to lose anybody like (last year's seniors), but I almost think it's a good thing for us," he said. "We have new faces out there and we have new people leading the team. I don't want to say it's cockiness, but there's a confidence about us. This team is very confident and we believe we can do it all."
Despite having been leaders on the team for so long, there was also a feeling that perhaps a change in command was needed for the program. Although Laurinaitis, Jenkins and the like had led the Buckeyes to back-to-back national championship games, OSU has lost its last three bowl appearances and was soundly defeated by USC during the regular season last year.
An odds-on favorite to be a captain, Coleman acknowledged that Pryor is now the face of the team. Asked if Pryor might be named a team captain, Tressel said, "I guess sitting here at this moment I'm not sure that is something that you would want to add to a sophomore's plate, but we'll see how things evolve."
Tressel pointed out that leaders are not created overnight. For all the bravado of some of the younger players on the team, there are still a few steps that need to be taken before they can prove themselves capable of steering the ship.
"Leadership, whether you've been here two years or three years or maybe it's your first year into the mix, is only indicated when it gets hard out there – whether it gets hard during summer training or it gets hard out there in preseason training or it gets hard out there down 10 points in your own stadium or whatever," he said. "That's when leadership emerges and people look to someone."
That lack of overall experience and knowledge spills over to the playing field, where Tressel said the coaches will spend the fall trying to get a better feel for what this team will be able to do best. Safe to say, that was not the case a year ago on a team that returned 18 starters on both sides of the ball.
"You probably just don't know the speed at which they're going to evolve into their roles and who is going to step up," Tressel said. "With us not knowing as much about them, it's a little bit harder to feature the things that they do best when you're really not sure yet what they do best and how that meshes with what the other guys do best. We're going to need to really come together quickly in this month of August."