He ended the 2006 season as the starter almost by default, and he now begins the 2007 season as the…
The same holds true of football movies. In the interest of drama, every collision on the football field in many movies will be a highlight reel blast that in real life would most likely leave the player on the receiving end wondering which state he is in and why all the people are yelling so loudly.
So Saturday afternoon in Ohio Stadium, then, seemed like a movie set. Time after time, the Buckeyes would line up seemingly with intent to inflict serious bodily harm on Northwestern, and often would do so with rocking hit after hit that drew applause from the Horseshoe crowd and rave reviews from excited teammates.
"Guys jump up and down and they get fired up with each other," head coach Jim Tressel said. "All I care is that they celebrate together, and I don't want them celebrating on the guy that got whacked, but I love those vicious collisions."
And most of those hits came on the special teams from freshman linebacker Brian Rolle and junior safety Jamario O'Neal. Both had two bone-jarring hits on returns, and each came up with a hit that left a Wildcat woozy.
Only one served to knock a Wildcat out of the game. The unlucky recipient was cornerback Sherrick McManis. The sophomore was deep to return a kickoff, but instead it was Brad Phillips who cut in front of McManis to take the kick. McManis then tried to help a teammate block O'Neal, a move that proved to be a bad idea when he was nailed by the hard-charging Clevelander's shoulder.
After the play, McManus attempted to stumble to his feet, but it was clear he had no legs under him. Two trainers stood with him on the field for a few moments before helping him to the sideline, and he would not return.
"He took a shot to the head," NU head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Obviously the safety and well-being of our players is our No. 1 priority."
O'Neal first riled up the troops with Northwestern returning a kickoff after Ohio State took a 14-0 lead. McManis' kick return ended when O'Neal and teammate Tyler Moeller combined to lay him out with a vicious lick.
But for all that O'Neal did, it was Rolle who was the star after delivering the biggest hit of the day. With Ray Small returning a punt on the first play of the second quarter, Rolle spied NU cornerback David Oredugba chasing Small. Rolle lined up the defensive back and delivered a high hit from the side that send the unsuspecting Oredugba to the turf, where he remained for nearly five minutes.
"I was supposed to make sure it wasn't a fake," Rolle said. "I just dropped back and saw something I had to do. Just make a block so a guy could make a play – I felt like that was my duty."
"Brian Rolle is going to win Jack Tatum this week in a landslide," offensive tackle Kirk Barton said, referencing the team's hit of the week award. "He hit that kid hard. I hope he's alright, but (Rolle) crushed him."
Rolle's other bone-cruncher came when McManis returned a first-quarter kickoff. Rather than take a knee in the end zone, McManis brought the ball out, but he paid when Rolle delivered a high hit that had a clothesline effect on the return man as he hit the 16-yard line.
The freshman from Immokalee, Fla., played the most he has this year in the absence of linebacker Ross Homan, a role he earned from his reckless play on special teams. At just 5-11, Rolle said he has to make the most of his blazing speed toward the ball.
"I tell the coaches all the time, I play 6-1, 240," he said. "I tell them my speed makes up for everything."
To a man, the Ohio State defense said the special teams hits charged them up, and it looked like it, as the stop troops delivered some licks of their own. The general recipient was Northwestern quarterback C.J. Bacher, who was laid out by a blindside sack from Vernon Gholston in the first quarter, and then had All-America James Laurinaitis decleat him an instant after delivering a pass that was intercepted by Chimdi Chekwa.
"When they make a big hit, the defense runs out on the field and you get excited for those guys," defensive tackle Todd Denlinger said of the special units. "That means a lot to the defense."
The scene left sophomore wideout Brian Hartline a bit wistful. A season ago, it was Hartline who was known for his kamikaze runs down the field that often ended with opponents in a daze. Most famously, he dropped one of the Big Ten's best kick returners, Indiana's Marcus Thigpen, with a hit that knocked him out of the game.
With Ohio State's quick strike offense on the field for less than 13 minutes in the first half and Rolle and O'Neal putting a dent in the Wildcat special teamers, Hartline said afterward he wouldn't have minded another crack at his old role.
"Days like today I want to go down there and blast somebody," he said. "Because the offense was on and off the field so quick, I wanted to stay on the field. I was like, ‘This is a perfect day to be on kickoffs.'"