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Aug. 2, 2006

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio State football begins its sixth season under the direction of head coach Jim Tressel Sunday when the team reports to camp. Practice commences the following day when the Buckeyes take to the field preparing to defend their 2005 Big Ten co-championship.

On Tuesday, Ohio State was the media pick as the preseason favorite to win this year’s championship. A championship would mark the third title in five years for Tressel’s Buckeyes. The preseason acclaim is just another bit of notoriety for a team some have picked to challenge for the national championship.

Helping lead this year’s team is a group of 19 seniors, including 16 who are in their fifth year as Buckeyes. A majority of the class was on the roster for the 2002 national championship season, has been a part of two Big Ten championship teams and has won three BCS games.

“Our leadership will turn out to be strong,” Tressel, who is 50-13 at Ohio State, said. “We have 16 guys on the team as fifth-year seniors and they have experienced a lot. From the high of winning a national championship to the low of a three-game losing streak (in 2004). They have seen it all. When you have seen as much as they have, you hope they have gained the lessons that help them develop as leaders.”

The team returns 43 lettermen from last year’s team that finished 7-1 to tie Penn State for the Big Ten title and beat Notre Dame 34-20 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, finishing fourth in the nation with a 10-2 record. The team returns 10 starters, including eight from an offense that averaged almost 33 points and 423 yards per game a season ago.

Much of the excitement surrounding the team centers on four incredibly talented players, featuring a duo who could contend for the Heisman Trophy in December. Quarterback Troy Smith and flanker Ted Ginn Jr. each will try to win the school’s seventh bronze statue. Split end Anthony Gonzalez and tailback Antonio Pittman fill out the quartet. Smith, who was picked as the Preseason Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Tuesday, piled up 2,893 yards of total offense and accounted for 27 touchdowns (16 passing and 11 rushing) last year. He guided the Buckeyes to seven straight wins to end the season and then in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, Smith outshined Irish quarterback Brady Quinn, who finished fourth in Heisman balloting. Smith threw for a career-high 342 yards, a pair of touchdowns and added another 66 yards rushing to earn Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP honors.

While Smith was becoming one of the finest all-around quarterbacks in college football, the electrifying Ginn had his best year as a receiver, finishing with 51 catches for 803 yards and four touchdowns, the shortest of which covered 42 yards. He totaled 17 receptions his final two games, including eight catches for 167 yards and a TD vs. Notre Dame. Against the Irish, he scored on a 56-yard reception and a 68-yard reverse. He was untouched on both plays. Gonzalez is the other option. He totaled 28 receptions, scored three touchdowns and averaged 13.3 yards per catch. Fans will no doubt remember his acrobatic 26-yard grab that set up the winning score against Michigan in Ann Arbor last season.

Pittman had a superb sophomore season, finishing the 2005 campaign with 1,331 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards on 243 carries.

“We are full of anticipation to see what Ted Ginn, Anthony Gonzalez and Antonio Pittman will be able accomplish this season,” Tressel said. “We’ll have to see if we can live up to some of the expectations of this team and make up for the guys who left us as high draft choices.”

The offensive line is big, strong, athletic, explosive and experienced. Three starters return up front, including Kirk Barton, Doug Datish and T.J. Downing. Datish, who started at left guard in 2004 and left tackle last year, will take over at center for first-round NFL draft pick Nick Mangold. Barton is a force at right tackle, while Downing returns for his second season as a starter at right guard. No doubt those guys will be the leaders on the line.

Ohio State followers had been spoiled on the defensive side of the ball the last few years. Linebackers A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Schlegel, defensive backs Tyler Everett, Ashton Youboty, Nate Salley, Donte Whitner and linemen Mike Kudla and Marcus Green had become household names. All of them are gone, leaving just two defensive starters on the 2006 depth chart.

Tackles Quinn Pitcock and David Patterson are left to anchor the defense, which returns 20 lettermen. Judging by spring practice there is no lack of talent, speed or enthusiasm.

“We are extremely deep and experienced,” Tressel said. “We did not have many guys injured during spring practice. Our height, weight and speed are more than adequate. We will have to see how they perform day to day and week to week. That evolution is key.”

Pitcock and Patterson combined for 52 tackles last year, including 10.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. Pitcock is unquestionably the strongest player on the team and is a dominating player, while Patterson, who started at end last year and moved inside after the first series, demonstrates exceptional quickness.

Lawrence Wilson and Jay Richardson look to step into starting roles on the ends, while John Kerr, Marcus Freeman and James Laurinaitis, who stepped in for the injured Carpenter against Michigan, are slated as starting linebackers as the team reports to camp. Malcolm Jenkins and Antonio Smith finished the spring as the two corners, while Nick Patterson and Jamario O’Neal edged ahead as the safeties.

Competition will continue throughout camp and on a weekly basis once the season begins Sept. 2 against Northern Illinois.

“We cover many issues in camp,” Tressel said. “We have good experience covering everything. We leave no stone unturned. We thoroughly prepare in every phase of the game and adjust as time goes on.”

Monday will be the first day of practice, but the team will not put shells on until Wednesday. The team then puts on pads Aug. 12. The first two-a-day is Aug. 14 with scrimmages Aug. 19 and Aug. 23.

“It is exciting to have camp starting,” Tressel said. “It has been an exciting offseason with the renovations to the Woody Hayes facility. It has disheveled our day-to-day routine. We had some different things happen this year with what Tyson Gentry went through and the health problems of (coaches) Joe Daniels and Jim Bollman. It has been a lot different of an offseason, but I’m excited. We’re ready to lace up and have fun.”