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R.J. Coleman's freshman season ends with Fiesta Bowl

by Mike Nutter

SPORTS WRITER

R.J. Coleman realizes that while most of his high school friends are home from college for the Christmas break, he's still stuck in the confines of a dorm room. He realizes that while they're letting off some steam from the first semester of studies, he's still putting in hours of practice nearly every day.

Coleman has accepted it. It's the reason he chose to attend Ohio State.

When the Buckeyes depart for Tempe, Ariz., later this month, Coleman will be along the sidelines as Ohio State will take on Miami for the national title Jan. 3 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Coleman admits it's been an incredible ride for someone who just a year ago was finishing his high school football season.

"It's been amazing. That's about all you can say about it," Coleman said. "I mean, when we came in, the seniors set their goals to play for the national championship. Every team does that, but I've never been around a group of guys like them.

"They set their goals and they want to get it done. Everyone's excited about being 13-0 and playing in the Fiesta Bowl, but we're not stopping there."

Coleman came to Columbus as one of the nation's most highly-touted tight ends. He picked Ohio State over several other Big Ten schools such as Wisconsin and Penn State. A year later, he's added nearly 30 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame and weighs around 290 -- a weight he says he can still play at comfortably.

Coleman took a redshirt this season but will be with the team in Tempe. Since arriving in Columbus, he has seen time as both a guard and tackle on the scout team offensive line, but hasn't ruled out playing tight end.

"It really doesn't matter to me where I play at," Coleman said. "I could stay at tight end, but I'd have to keep my weight down. If they want to move me to the line, that's fine.

"It would actually be easier. It's tough to keep your weight down when you're in the weight room all the time. I really haven't lost any speed and I'm stronger now."

Ohio State just wrapped up its finals, giving the team until Jan. 3 to focus solely on Miami. The Buckeyes are 13-point underdogs to the defending national champs. It's a position Coleman said the team relishes.

"That's the way we like it," he said. "You hear what everyone says and we've seen some stuff that some of the Miami players have been saying.

"We want to be the underdogs. We'll just play the game and see what happens."

The reality of the scenario, Coleman says, is still somewhat surreal. Regardless of the Fiesta Bowl outcome, this season has given him some experiences most high schoolers dream of.

He said playing alongside freshman running back Maurice Clarett and being on the field in one of the nation's most fierce rivalries when the Buckeyes played Michigan is something he'll never forget.

"I've never seen anything like that game," Coleman said. "When you go out on the field, you've got all these former players making a tunnel. It's probably 10 times louder than it's been all season.

"You realize what a rivalry it is then. You really want to beat those guys."

And as for Clarett, Coleman said the Buckeye phenom is somewhat misunderstood by the media.

"It's great to have a player like him on your team," he said. "You see the games he's played in and what kind of spark he's given our offense.

"I know a lot of people say he's cocky, but he's really not. He's confident in what he does. He just like everyone else."

Still, all of this would pale in comparison to what a victory over Miami would mean to Coleman and the rest of the Buckeyes.

"When we beat Northwestern to go 6-0 and become bowl eligible, I was like 'OK, this is pretty neat,' but then after eight or nine (wins) you really start thinking about it.

"No one said anything, but you could tell what everyone was thinking about."

To beat the 'Canes, Coleman said Ohio State will have to play solid defense and run the ball effectively -- two things which have been the team's hallmark all season.

"I'm thrilled to be a part of all of this," Coleman said. "When you're a redshirt, you wish you could be a bigger part of it, but you realize everyone has something to do with it.

"I still can't believe I'll be going to the Fiesta Bowl. This is why you come to Ohio State."

Sports writer Mike Nutter can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at mnutter@exponent-telegram.com