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Some make fun of Ohio State for losing its final game in each of the past two seasons, but at least those losses came in national championship games. It's not a stretch to suggest the Buckeyes, who have 18 starters back, could make a third consecutive championship game appearance. Replacing All-Big Ten offensive tackle Kirk Barton and getting better at defensive tackle will be among the top priorities. If quarterback Todd Boeckman looks good this spring, the Buckeyes should reinforce their status as the class of the Big Ten. Here's a look at the Buckeyes going into spring drills.
Ohio State tailback Chris Wells returns to lead the Buckeyes offense.
Defense?9: T Nader Abdallah, SS Kurt Coleman, LB Marcus Freeman, E Cameron Heyward, CB Malcolm Jenkins, LB James Laurinaitis, FS Anderson Russell, CB Donald Washington, T Doug Worthington.
Offense?9: QB Todd Boeckman, T Alex Boone, C Jim Cordle, WR Brian Hartline, TE Rory Nicol, G Ben Person, G Steve Rehring, WR Brian Robiskie, TB Chris Wells.
Special teams?2: K Ryan Pretorius, P A.J. Trapasso.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Wells has power and speed at tailback, and parlayed those attributes to produce more than 1,600 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. He'll be among the leading Heisman Trophy candidates. Maurice Wells is a reliable backup. There are two returning starters at linebacker; Laurinaitis has All-American credentials and Freeman has earned All-Big Ten recognition. A third starter is needed, but the Buckeyes have no shortage of athletic players to take over that spot. All four secondary starters return from a defense that ranked No.1 nationally against the pass. Jenkins has the potential to be an All-American.
HELP IS NEEDED
There aren't many holes on a team that posted 11 victories and returns 18 starters. But the Buckeyes need to find an adequate replacement for defensive end Vernon Gholston, who posted 14 sacks in 2007. The kicking and punting are stable, but the Buckeyes need to upgrade their return teams, especially a kick-return unit that ranked 117th nationally a year ago.
KEEP AN EYE ON
QB Todd Boeckman: Returning senior starting quarterbacks usually wouldn't be listed here, but Boeckman struggled in the last three games of 2007 (414 yards with six interceptions and just two touchdowns). With versatile Antonio Henton there and top recruit Terrelle Pryor coming in, Boeckman needs to re-establish himself as the guy who could guide the Buckeyes to a championship.
OT Bryant Browning: He backed up Kirk Barton last season, and mostly played on special teams. He'll have a chance to move into the starting lineup, but will have to hold off some heralded incoming freshmen.
DE Lawrence Wilson: Last year he was expected to have a breakout season. Instead, he broke his leg in the first quarter of the first game. If he comes back fully recovered, Wilson could sufficiently ease the loss of Gholston.
HIS TIME IS NOW
Ray Small was supposed to follow Ted Ginn Jr. as the next "big play" threat for the Buckeyes. It hasn't worked out that way. Small just caught 20 passes and scored only two touchdowns last season. With a lackluster spring showing, he might not even be the Buckeyes' No. 3 receiver in the fall.
The Buckeyes don't have many issues, but they do need to develop depth in the offensive line, bolster the interior of defensive line and improve the passing game. Should they make strides in those areas this spring, they can go into the offseason optimistic about their chances of making a legitimate bid at a third consecutive BCS Championship Game appearance this fall.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.