Players like James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman, Brian Robiskie, Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Wells and Alex Boone rose to prominence in 2006 – or earlier – and were the team's best players and leaders for multiple seasons.
So as Kurt Coleman, Doug Worthington and Jake Ballard accompanied head coach Jim Tressel to Chicago last week for the Big Ten media days, the changing of the guard when it comes to the leadership of the Ohio State football team made its first public appearance.
"I think it's an honor and a privilege for Coach Tressel and (sports information director) Shelly (Poe), for them to have me come up here and represent this team," senior safety Kurt Coleman said. "I think as a senior class collectively, we're looked upon to be the leaders of the team. This is our team.
"In the long run, at the end of 2009, it's going to say senior class, how did they do? This is our team and we want to leave a big imprint on Ohio State, the Big Ten and the nation."
Just how far the 2009 Buckeyes go could depend on that group of leaders. A year after graduating 28 seniors from a highly successful run that still seemed to be defined by its failures on the national stage, Ohio State comes into the season with just Coleman, Worthington, Jim Cordle and Anderson Russell as returning senior starters.
Also projected to be major contributors from the senior group are players like Ballard, Aaron Pettrey, Ray Small, Austin Spitler, Todd Denlinger, Lawrence Wilson, Rob Rose and Andre Amos and Jon Thoma.
When it comes to learning how to become leaders, the players in Chicago from that group said they've looked to some of their former elders. All credited some of the big names like Laurinaitis and Freeman – and even older players like Troy Smith and Anthony Gonzalez – when it came to learning leadership styles, while Coleman added that he used to watch how fellow secondary members Antonio Smith and Brandon Mitchell went about their business.
"We've been around an extraordinary group of people," Worthington said. "It's beautiful to be able to have your time to shine and have your time to be on top and have the younger guys look up to you and try to show them a great pathway as you have been showed before."
But that doesn't mean the new Buckeye upperclassmen will approach the upcoming season as those before them did. With a younger group – highlighted by quarterback and sophomore Terrelle Pryor – champing at the bit to make their mark, the spring and summer has been filled with more of an edge than in the past when the players in charge were steadier, quieter bosses like Laurinaitis and Robiskie.
"It's been very vocal," Coleman said. "I would say it's an attitude. We have an attitude. It's an attitude of, ‘We don't care what's going on. We're going to go after it, and we believe that we're the best.' It's great. We're having a lot of fun out there. It's competition. Every time we go out there, we're having a competition between each other.
"In years past, I can't really say that's happened. We've worked hard, but as far as competition and believing that we're going to outwork each other, outwork our opponents, I think that's where it starts and getting it into your head that we believe that we're the best. That's going to transition out to the field."
Coleman went on to say that attitude has been aided by a healthy dose of teamwork provided by the reality that the current group of seniors is shorter on star power than those in the past.
"We don't have one standout person. We're one collective bunch," he said. "It's good because we're all on the same page, we're all on the same agenda. I think a lot of guys are hungry. We're hungry and we're ready to get out there and prove that we are and we believe we are the best."
Talk like that has Coleman as the odds-on favorite to become one of what should be four captains on the team. The rest of the spots appear to be up for at least some debate, with players like Worthington, Cordle and Ballard among the top candidates. Pryor also seems to be in the running, though an Ohio State team coached by Tressel has never featured a full-time captain who was an underclassman (Laurinaitis was a junior in 2007).
Captains will be voted on, Worthington said, on the first day and announced before the season starts, although the defensive lineman added that Tressel has the final say.
"It would be a great blessing and a great honor," Worthington said. "It's something that I think about once in a blue moon. But at the end of the day, regardless if I'm the guy up there, I'm still going to lead the team as much as I can and do my part."
For Ballard, the transition into possibly being captain material was rough for a short time as he tried to figure out the best way to position himself as a team leader.
"I'm not the most vocal guy in the world, and I talked to Tress about it," the tight end said. "I said one of my goals for this year is to get a chance to be a captain, and I asked, ‘What do you think I need to do?' and he was like, ‘You just need to keep being yourself.' I told him, ‘What about being more vocal?' He was like, ‘Jake, you're not going to be that guy. You're not going to be the vocal leader, but you lead in other ways by leading drills and in the weight room.'
"That's my role. A lot of people have different roles on the team and I'm just not one of the most vocal. That's not me."
No matter how the votes shake out, Ballard said he already feels as though he and his classmates are starting to put their legacy on the 2009 edition of the Ohio State football team.
"It definitely feels that way," he said. "When you're in workouts and you're running and you're leading some drills and leading some sprints and you're really busting your butt and all these younger guys are following you, it really is just weird to think about, I remember three years ago I was looking up to the Troy Smiths and (Antonio) Pittmans and Gonzos. Now me and Kurt and Doug and Jimmy, we're those guys.
"You really feel a sense of having to show the younger kids how it's done, show them why we've been Big Ten champs the last four years."