-- COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A powerful unit rolls into a meeting room all together on time, even if it's 6:30 in the morning. This football band of brothers known as the Ohio State running backs knows which member may have needed to sleep at the practice facility to make it that early during a bye week, or which guy was most likely to have skipped brushing his teeth.
They also know they better respond when their position coach, Stan Drayton, coffee in one hand and clicker for game tape in the other, greets them with a sharp, loud, "Good morning."
Sit in a Buckeyes running backs meeting and it becomes painfully obvious that the most important thing for this unit comprised of everything from a true freshman to a senior is that it had better be ready for anything Drayton might throw at it. It's only an hour, but this film session doubles as yet another competition for a group that thrives on it.
"Clarity of purpose," Drayton barks as the lights dim and position drills from the day before are cued up on the whiteboard in the front of the room.
"Opportunities don't come along a lot, do they?"
Individually, those opportunities to make an impact might not pop up that frequently, and that message is subtly hammered home over an intense 60 minutes of review and preparation.
But collectively? There is no shortage of chances for the running backs to make an impression and have an impact. And for this group of Buckeyes, an hour in their room before the sun comes up is only the start of a full day of them to ensure that no other unit operates at their capacity.
'You have a responsibility here, all of you, to help your brother'
For all the damage the talent assembled in front of Drayton can do with the football in their hands, hardly any time is spent breaking down that part of the game in the early hours of this Thursday morning.
A full 20 minutes right off the bat is dedicated to pass protection and picking up blitzes, and Drayton only needs a handful of filmed practice reps to make it clear that's his top priority.
Blocks are replayed over and over with the remote in Drayton's right hand, as the focus shifts from footwork to balance to hand placement and then all the way up to where the helmet is aligned when a hit is made.
When the Buckeyes are done with that, they dive into routes in the passing game that aren't necessarily designed to even get them the ball, instead drawing attention away from defenders to open up space for other targets down the field.
Partially the time spent on anything other than handling the ball is dictated by how practice the previous day had been organized. It also suits a larger purpose for Drayton, though, because he is not only trying to build complete tailbacks but reinforce that there are other ways for five scholarship players to contribute without accumulating personal statistics.
"It's a reality check for the young man who has spent his whole career being the guy," Drayton said. "We do believe it is a total team effort that provides individual success as well as program success. In everyday teaching, that has to be creatively reinforced on a daily basis.
"The more a guy can have that mindset, the more he's going to add production to the team as a whole."
With so many egos in one place and each player believing his personal production can help the team the most, the trick is turning that pride into something that goes beyond the individual.
At one point in the preseason, the whiteboard where the film is projected was covered with goals for every player in the room. Obviously with just one football and so many Buckeyes vying to touch it, the impossibility of checking them all off the huge list was clear to the rushers from the start.
So they started picking and choosing, slowly turning the long list of personal achievements into unit goals that might be attainable. And the seeds were planted for a group of guys suddenly pulling the rope all in the same direction.
"Here's the deal," Drayton said. "When you're dealing with elite athletes, they're very selfish individuals. OK, that's what makes them elite.
"What we try to do in our room is try to make all the different sets of goals and blend them all into one. Take them all, put them in a blender and blend them all up into one. When you pour it out, what is it? Whatever it is becomes one. We fight for it. We fight for ourselves. We fight for each other. That creates an unbelievable bond."
'You don't get better unless you unselfishly give back to your brother'
After a little more than half an hour, Drayton is ready to hand off the clicker and put his students in charge.
He calls up true freshman Curtis Samuel, and the newcomer is now coaching his peers -- most of whom are obviously older and more experienced. But his voice carries just as much weight as anybody else's in the room, and nobody argues if he points out flaws in technique or missed assignments.
Drayton is, of course, evaluating how much his "rookie" knows, but constructive criticism and dialogue between peers is also another tool in building that bond among the running backs.
"It's not intimidating or anything, because we're such a close group," Samuel said. "We all know that if anybody makes a mistake, it's on us to help each other. We listen to all the other guys if they tell us something, even if he's right or even if he's wrong.
"We stick together and listen to everybody's opinion."
That also works in the other direction, and Drayton isn't immune to jokes at his expense.
A workout freak who will occasionally bike to practice started the meeting by joking that he had planned to get up at 4 to show up his players by pedaling to the office in the dark hours before dawn before finally deciding not to.
"Almost doesn't count," redshirt sophomore Bri'onte Dunn said.
"That's good," Drayton countered. "Hold me to the standard."
The Buckeyes keep it high, and nobody is allowed to drop below the line.
A powerful unit doesn't accept anything less than the best, regardless of age.
'It's a competition in this room every day'
After the hours of meetings, the intense practices, the workouts and all the extra work outside the practice facility, a powerful unit finally gets to show what it can do on the field.
The running backs haven't always had the reputation as the most productive group on the team since Urban Meyer took over, but it's easy to see the change they've made to come together and work toward a common goal when they line up on the sideline before a kickoff.
Each of them already has had to come to terms with the fact that the football won't always be in their hands on offense, and it's up to them to find ways to contribute. And when that comes on special teams as Dunn gets his first official start covering kicks against Cincinnati, the other running backs inch as close to the field as they can get, fired up and screaming to show support for one of their brothers.
And one of the biggest roars from the sideline in a blowout win soon follows when Dunn flies down the field, makes the hit and sets off a celebration that might normally be reserved for touchdowns.
"I don't know if that individual would have done that if those guys weren't right there behind him," Drayton said fighting back tears of pride. "He had never shown it before. I've got national championship rings, but I'll never forget that. I'll never forget those guys for that. And I know that they won't forget it either. I damn sure know that the kid who made that hit will never forget it. He's forever changed.
"I know that it's coming from them. That's what makes this unit special."
Ultimately, it's that chemistry, the selflessness and teamwork that is the source of that power.
From early in the morning to the end of the work day, no unit can thrive without it.