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College Football

Loaded on offense, Ohio State could be putting its title hopes in the hands ofa set of largely untested linebackers

As Ohio State'slikely starting strongside linebacker this fall, James Laurinaitis knows wellwhat's in store for him the first time he misses a tackle or blows anassignment. "People are going to say, 'If that was A.J. or Bobby, thatwouldn't have happened,'" says Laurinaitis.

A.J. and Bobby areformer Buckeyes linebackers A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter, projectedfirst-round picks in this weekend's NFL draft who, along with departed seniorAnthony Schlegel, combined for 252 tackles and 191/2 sacks for 10--2 Ohio Statelast season. While the Buckeyes enter 2006 with a bevy of playmaking stars onoffense (quarterback Troy Smith, wideout Ted Ginn Jr., running back AntonioPittman), last Saturday's Scarlet and Gray game gave the 63,649 on hand theirfirst opportunity to scrutinize the many new players on defense, most notablythe linebackers.

Ohio State isn'tcompletely devoid of experience at the position. As a freshman at Indiana in2002, John Kerr finished tied for seventh in the Big Ten in tackles, with 114.After a falling-out with then Hoosiers coach Gerry DiNardo, Kerr transferred toOSU, where, after sitting out a year, he played mostly on special teams for thepast two seasons. "When you're behind a guy like A.J., your options arekind of limited," says Kerr, a native of Strongsville, Ohio, who because ofthe Big Ten's intraconference transfer rules is prohibited from receivingscholarship aid. His patience should finally be rewarded this season, as Kerris listed as the starter at middle linebacker. "It will be exciting toactually go out there and hit people," he says. "It's been fouryears."

Kerr is expectedto be joined in the lineup by Laurinaitis, a sophomore who filled in for aninjured Carpenter against Michigan and Notre Dame at the end of last season,and third-year sophomore Marcus Freeman, who will take over Hawk's vacatedweakside position. Their spots are not locked up, however, due to impressiveperformances this spring by a pair of newcomers. Ross Homan, a freshman fromColdwater, Ohio, who enrolled in January, turned heads in his first springworkouts, drawing comparisons with a young Hawk. He led the Scarlet team witheight tackles on Saturday. Then there's Larry Grant, an athletic transfer fromCity College of San Francisco who was the 2005 junior college national playerof the year. "Every day he shows you why you have to find a way to make himimpact your team," says coach Jim Tressel.

Along withhard-hitting junior Curtis Terry and promising redshirt freshman AustinSpitler, Tressel believes he has seven candidates for three starting positions."They all run well, they all seem to be learning well," he says."From those seven guys we're going to end up with a pretty solidlinebacking corps."

With last year'sstarting secondary wiped out as well, the new linebackers will need to jellquickly if the Buckeyes are to contend for the 2006 national title. (Severalpolls have tabbed Ohio State as the likely preseason No. 1.) They visitdefending national champion Texas on Sept. 9 in their second game. It was anencouraging sign, however, that the young defenders held their own againsttheir vaunted offensive counterparts in spring scrimmages, and neither theScarlet nor the Gray cracked 300 yards of offense on Saturday. "If we canstop our team," says Laurinaitis, "we're going to be allright."

Early Risers

Three highlytouted quarterbacks who signed with Top 20 programs in February enrolled earlyand were on the field for spring practice. Here's how they fared.

•Texas coach MackBrown indicated that Jevan Snead (above) will platoon with redshirt freshmanColt McCoy to start the season. Snead completed 9 of 13 passes for 97 yardswith a touchdown and an interception in the Longhorns' spring game.

•Matthew Staffordmade huge strides at Georgia and could challenge senior Joe Tereshinski.Stafford was 5 of 12 for 102 yards and threw a 64-yard touchdown pass in theBulldogs' spring finale.

•Florida coachUrban Meyer has been adamant that senior Chris Leak will be his starter, butTim Tebow gave Gators fans a glimpse of the future, completing 15 of 21 passesfor 197 yards and a touchdown in the Blue-Orange game.



TOUGHTASK - Laurinaitis, who started in the Fiesta Bowl, is well aware of theexpectations.