It's a question that has lingered around Ohio State ever since the Allstate Sugar Bowl: How exactly will the Buckeyes blend in the four suspended players -- including three key starters -- when they become eligible midway through this season?
While the answer to that won't come for a few more weeks, head coach Luke Fickell gets a good chance to figure that out this week.
That's because three players who were suspended for the opener for receiving impermissible benefits at a charity event -- starting cornerback Travis Howard, starting running back Jordan Hall and reserve defensive back Corey "Pittsburgh" Brown -- have been reinstated to the team this week, along with linebacker Jordan Whiting, who served a one-game ban for his role in the tattoo trading.
Howard and Hall in particular were expected to play important roles. In their absence, the Buckeyes received good play from cornerback Dominic Clarke and running backs Carlos Hyde and Rod Smith in the 42-0 opening win over Akron. So now what? Does Fickell just plug the suspended guys back into their starting jobs? Or does he stay with the guys who did nothing wrong and played well when given an opportunity?
Fickell said nothing has been determined about those starting spots and won't be until this week's practice sessions. But he also realizes how important his handling of this situation will be.
"Those guys coming back are great assets to us," Fickell said. "But we want to make sure that they don't just jump back in there, because those guys have filled in and stepped up and took their game to another level. They deserve the same situation they were in last week. We're going to make it a great example that hey, those guys that come back have got to earn everything. Just like our entire team does; we're going to earn everything."
Fickell said the returning suspended players are "accepting it and willing to go out there and practice" in an effort to get their jobs back. This could signal how the Buckeyes work in running back Dan Herron, receiver DeVier Posey, left tackle Mike Adams and defensive linemen Soloman Thomas when their suspensions end after the fifth game. In the case of the first three of those players, they are proven veterans and most likely the most talented guys at their positions. But will chemistry be affected if they step back in to replace those who may have excelled in their absence?
Running back is already becoming a crowded position. With Hall back and Jaamal Berry (hamstring) expected to be available this week against Toledo, the Buckeyes' backfield will have doubled in one week. And that's before Herron comes back. Keeping everyone happy might be a tricky balancing act.
"I think those guys can all co-exist," Fickell said.
Ohio State may start to find out this week just how well that works.
Some other quick Buckeyes notes:
Fickell received a game ball from athletic director Gene Smith following the Akron win. But as has been his attitude since he took the job, Fickell deflected attention from himself.
Toledo coach Tim Beckman used to coach alongside Fickell when he was Ohio State's cornerbacks coach in 2005 and 2006. Fickell said he spent time with Beckman this summer during the Buckeyes camps. "It's just like if I was playing my brother," Fickell said.