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Buckeyes' loyalty runs deep

Several NFL prospects stayed at Ohio State for their senior year and another shot at a BCS title.

September 12, 2008|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Not that Malcolm Jenkins is given to second-guessing -- cornerbacks aren't supposed to dwell on the past -- but there are moments.

Like when the Ohio State senior walks into a restaurant, checks the prices and wonders about his decision to stick around rather than leave school early for the NFL.

Man, he thinks, this is going to hurt my wallet.

Ohio State's roster includes no fewer than a dozen players who resisted the prospect of pro money last winter. The Buckeyes might be decided underdogs against top-ranked USC on Saturday, but they enter the Coliseum with 20 players who started last season.

Twenty veterans from a program that reached the last two national championship games.

"Think of all the transitions they don't have to make with new starters," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "It gives them great continuity."

The hangers-on include two All-Americans on defense -- Jenkins and linebacker James Laurinaitis -- and another top linebacker in Marcus Freeman. On offense, quarterback Todd Boeckman, tackle Alex Boone and receivers Brian Hartline and Brian Robiskie submitted inquiries to the NFL.

One Buckeye did enter the draft last spring -- defensive lineman Vernon Gholston, a first-round pick by the New York Jets. But the predominant loyalty in Columbus would thrill most coaches, including Carroll, who believes most players should remain in school.

"That's the natural cycle," he said. "Anybody who decides to do that right and take advantage of it, I know they've done the right thing."

At Ohio State, a reported 25 players had left early since 1992. But the 2005 recruiting class vowed to stick together. Their pact was tested when Coach Jim Tressel encouraged 13 of his best players to make use of the NFL's draft evaluation before last season's national championship game.

"As a group, we had said we were coming back," Freeman recalled. "But each of us had to go and think about it on our own."

They weighed family circumstances and their chances of being high picks. After two straight losses in title games, there was an aspect of unfinished business but also the risk of a career-ending injury. And each player wondered what his colleagues would decide.

"Me and James [Laurinaitis] talked a little bit," Jenkins said. "We never said what we were going to do."

If a substantial portion of the 13 left, the remaining team would be weakened. On the flipside, Freeman said, "you didn't want to be the one guy who leaves and misses out."

Michigan faced a similar situation the year before, when offensive tackle Jake Long, tailback Mike Hart and quarterback Chad Henne stayed in school. Long said he wanted to achieve certain goals, including a victory over Ohio State.

The Buckeyes cite different motivations.

Laurinaitis talks about being "seriously in love" with the team, its fans and the city of Columbus. Jenkins considered the NFL's business-like atmosphere, saying: "I wasn't ready to make football a job."

Whatever the reasons, their return has paid immediate dividends for the Buckeyes.

Laurinaitis and Freeman lead the team in tackles. Jenkins already has an interception. Despite an injury to tailback Chris Wells, Ohio State is averaging more than 200 rushing yards behind Boone and the veteran offensive line.

Most important, the Buckeyes overcame a shaky start to engineer a second-half comeback last week against Ohio, improving to 2-0.

"These guys have won a ton of games together," Carroll said. "They know how to do it. They've played in all settings."

Tressel realizes this season could have been much different if a chunk of his upperclassmen had left. He wants them to feel they made the right choice.

"You feel a certain responsibility," he said. "Oh, I hope they get better."

Upsetting the top-ranked team in the nation would help. But Freeman says he is already convinced.

The linebacker talks about bonding with teammates. The butterflies he gets when hearing the band. The roar of the crowd.

"You're not just making the decision to go play in the NFL and make a little more money -- you're making a life change," he said. "I'm happy being a kid here."


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