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March 31, 2011

All eyes on Buckeyes this spring

Ohio State is in the midst of one of the most dominating runs in Big Ten history, winning at least a share of a league-record six conference crowns in a row. But there hasn't been a celebratory mood around Columbus of late.

Coach Jim Tressel is in hot water after failing to notify the school about the involvement of some of his players in the sale of memorabilia, which is an NCAA violation. Indeed, instead of notifying his boss or the school's compliance office, Tressel relayed the information to the "mentor" of one of the players.

The school has fined Tressel and suspended him for the first five games of the 2011 season. Last December, the NCAA suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor, tailback Dan Herron, wide receiver DeVier Posey, offensive tackle Mike Adams and defensive end Solomon Thomas for the first five games as punishment for their role in the case.

The NCAA still is investigating and could come back with more sanctions in the coming months. Tressel's status is unclear.

What's it all mean? Severe doubt is cast over the Buckeyes' ability to continue their incredible run.

OHIO STATE AT-A-GLANCE
Starting quarterback Terrelle Pryor is among five Ohio State players suspended for the first five games of the season.
THE BASICS
Coach: Jim Tressel
Last season: 12-1 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten. Beat Arkansas 31-26 in the Sugar Bowl.
Spring dates: March 31-April 23.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): T Mike Adams, FB Zach Boren, C Michael Brewster, RB Dan Herron, WR DeVier Posey, QB Terrelle Pryor, T J.B. Shugarts.
Defense (4): SS Orhian Johnson, T John Simon, LB Andrew Sweat, E Nathan Williams.
Special teams (1): P Ben Buchanan.
A huge portion of the spring will be devoted to finding a quarterback to replace Pryor for the first five games -- Akron, Toledo, at Miami, Colorado and Michigan State. A go-to receiver needs to emerge with Posey out. The Buckeyes also must find a fill-in for Adams, who has all-league talent.

In addition, Tressel calls the plays. Who will take over that duty while he is out? Co-defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Luke Fickell will serve as interim head coach for the first five games.

All in all, Ohio State might have the most-watched spring drills of any school in the nation.

Here's a look at the Buckeyes heading into spring practice.

Positions of strength

Ohio State should be fine at running back even with Dan Herron suspended and Brandon Saine graduated. Jordan Hall is a nifty runner with speed, but can Hall (5 feet 9/195 pounds) be an every-down back? Jaamal Berry also will get extra work this spring. He's a ballyhooed prospect who has shown flashes of greatness. A strong line returns three starters, though LT Mike Adams must sit out the first five games. He may have been the most improved player on offense last season. Touted Andrew Norwell is expected to step in for Adams. The search is on for two guards with Bryant Browning and Justin Boren gone. The Buckeyes have a strong duo at tight end in Jake Stoneburner and massive Reid Fragel (6-8/260).

Help is needed

Who will play quarterback the first five games? Terrelle Pryor figures to play a limited role this spring as coaches sort through other options at quarterback. Joe Bauserman, Kenny Guiton, Taylor Graham and true freshman Braxton Miller, who enrolled in January, are the contenders. It could come down to Miller and Bauserman, a senior. Miller arrives with a ton of press clippings and has the fans excited, but will the staff really turn the offense over to a true freshman? Bauserman may be the front-runner just because he's a senior, but he's a pedestrian talent. WR DeVier Posey far and away is the team's top deep threat, but he's also out for first five games. With Dane Sanzenbacher graduated, who's going to catch passes? No other wide receiver caught even 10 passes last season. Keep an eye on Corey Brown, a speedster who remains a work-in-progress. Chris Fields, who has good hands and sneaky speed, and Ty Williams, a big target who some feel will be the next great Buckeyes wide receiver, are others who could emerge. The defensive line will miss E Cameron Heyward and T Dexter Larimore. T John Simon needs to prove he can be a leader. Fellow Ts Johnathan Hankins, Garrett Goebel and Adam Bellamy also need to step up. But who will bring the heat off the edge? The linebacking corps took a hit with the departures of Brian Rolle and Ross Homan. Andrew Sweat must lead the way. Keep an eye on LB/SS Tyler Moeller, a senior who looks ready to finally take off after sitting out the better part of the past two seasons after being assaulted and suffering brain trauma in 2009. The search is on for cornerbacks with standouts Devon Torrence and Chimdi Chekwa gone. Travis Howard was the first corner off the bench last season and must assert himself as a No. 1 option. Lastly, a kicker must be found with Devin Barclay gone.

3 guys to watch

WR Corey Brown: There are two Corey Browns on the roster. This one, nicknamed "Philly" because he is from the Philadelphia area, has big-time speed. Brown gets in and out of cuts quickly but needs to work on his hands. He wasn't a full-time receiver in high school, so he still is adjusting to the position.

DT Johnathan Hankins: Hankins, a huge sophomore (6-3/335), was a productive player as a true freshman last season. If he's in shape and healthy, Hankins could end up being a disruptive force on the interior for a Buckeyes line that needs some playmakers.

QB Braxton Miller: The heralded recruit already is on campus and will go through spring drills. Insiders say Miller already is a more polished passer than Pryor. And his athletic skills are off the charts. But will the coaches trust a true freshman at quarterback? They did with Pryor, with, frankly, mixed results.

The pressure is on

LB Etienne Sabino: Will Sabino, a junior from Miami, finally break out? He has been a fan favorite since stepping onto campus in 2008 amid much hype, but his career never has taken off. The athletic Sabino redshirted last season after Andrew Sweat beat him out for a starting spot. This is a linebacking corps that needs help. If Sabino can't crack the starting lineup in 2011, it's never going to happen.

The buzz

Instead of focusing on priming for another run at a Big Ten title, Ohio State will spend the spring trying to figure out how to patch some big holes at quarterback, running back and receiver while staying in the hunt for big things. Plus, the specter of more NCAA sanctions looms, casting a pall over the program. The Buckeyes have enough talent to fill the spots created by the suspensions, as well as shoring up the front seven on defense, but will the off-field issues be too big of a distraction? Ohio State still could end up starting 5-0 -- each of the first five games is eminently winnable -- and again win the Big Ten crown. But Tressel never has had to navigate through rough waters like these in his 10 seasons in Columbus. It's not an overstatement to say the nation will be watching.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.



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