Promising returns on two OSU question marks

QUESTIONS HEADED into spring ball included those at running back and linebacker. And for good reason -- the guy accounted for over 3,800 yards on the ground the last three years was lost to graduation, as were all three starting linebackers from '07. It's a long ways between now and fall camp but in the case of Jeremy Francis, Ryan McCants and Keaton Kristick, the early returns are promising.

The running back buzz headed into spring ball was squarely on Ryan McCants. And he's been turning heads since Day One.

But Jeremy Francis has also shown he too might be ready for prime time on Saturdays.

"He's doing very well," said Riley of Francis. "I'm impressed with how he's learned and he appears to be exactly what we thought he was -- a very smooth athlete, a versatile player as a runner and receiver. Smart, and a really good guy."

Francis does a number of things well, has quick moves and a very good set of hands. His play has had some wondering if there's a battle brewing between him and McCants for the No. 1 job.

"It's too early to say yet, as far as what we're going to see this season," said Riley. "We're just letting these guys play and they're both learning. Ryan's been here a lot longer but he's very young and has never played a game. And Jeremy has just got started here, so it's way too early to say anything other than they both look very capable and that we look for them to progress a lot."

MEANWHILE, ALL THAT McCants has done is to meet and possibly exceed some hefty expectations here in spring's early going. He's drawn comparisons to Steven Jackson for being a punishing back who can run, and one who surprises a defense with how quickly he gets his 6-1, 236-pound frame to the corner.

It's a nice problem to have. And it could end up both players get significant turns -- maybe one turns out to be well suited towards third downs. Or maybe frequent substitution keeps defenses off balance.

"I'm up the challenge," said Francis. "...Blocking is very important to me. I'm kind of more of a finesse player but if I have to lower my shoulder, I definitely will."

It should be fun to see how it all works out over the next few months but for now, Riley remains noncommittal.

"I don't think there's a lot to be said about it right now other than McCants and Jeremy Francis look good," said Riley.

AT LINEBACKER, the task is significant -- replace from last year's squad three starters, a trio Riley says was as good as any in all of college football.

"We've had guys playing the games, that are here, which is good, but man, we have big shoes to fill. Those linebackers we had were awesome, probably as good a package of linebackers as there were in the country last year," said Riley.

THE EARLY INDICATIONS are that the position will take some time to shake itself out.

"But I like our guys," said Riley. "So it's going to a matter of those guys playing and then finding other guys who can back them up who are capable, too."

Keaton Kristick, who logged 15 tackles last season, is one who Riley said has looked the part in the early going this spring.

"You know I don't really care about vocal leadership -- I like leadership by example...and that's Keaton Kristick there, for sure," he said.

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