After the 1995 season, Ohio State tackle Orlando Pace had only scratched the surface of his potential — and at that point he was already a Lombardi Award winner and blocker for a Heisman Trophy recipient. Pace would finish his career as a two-time unanimous All-American, a Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, a top-four finisher for the Heisman Trophy and a likely Pro Football Hall of Famer.
Athlon Sports featured Pace prior to his 1996 season when he first grew into his reputation as “The Pancake Man.”
Originally published in Athlon’s 1996 Big Ten Annual
By Dick Fenlon
When asked to imagine himself on the other side of the ball, as a defensive lineman looking into the eyes of the renowned Pancake Man, Ohio State offensive tackle Orlando Pace wonders what ploy, what diversion, what marvelous feat of athleticism would be needed to avoid being flattened by the best interior offensive lineman in the country.
“If I’m across from me,” he says, “I’m thinking, do I want to bull rush? Or maybe I’ll fake him? It’s hard to analyze. Lining up against me? That would be a challenge, definitely.”
Pace, a 6-6, 330-pounder who looks as big without shoulder pads as he does with them (maybe they came with the body, installed at the factory, right off the assembly line), speaks so softly you have to lean close to hear him.
“Off the field I am calm,” the very large man whispers. “On the field, I have a little different demeanor. When I go out and play, I try and kill them (opposing defenders). It’s the aggression you have to take with you when you play big-time football.”
Pace plays football so well that the selectors for the Lombardi Award (presented to the outstanding college lineman) passed over worthy upperclassmen to give the award to an offensive tackle just two years off the high school field in Sandusky, Ohio. That move surprised the first sophomore to win the Lombardi in its 26-year history that he had to revise his own tentative awards schedule.
“Just before they awarded the Lombardi, they announced Outland (outstanding interior lineman),” says Pace, “and I didn’t win that one (it went to UCLA senior offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden). So I’m sitting at the awards banquet real relaxed. And I’m thinking, ‘Well, if (Ogden wins the Lombardi, too) I can win it next year, and the year after that.’ When they called my name, it really shocked me. It means a lot to me. It shows me where I stand among linemen. It tells me I did something in history.”
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So maybe there’ll be a repeat, or even a three-peat, although, one certainly wouldn’t want to bet on that, not with the scouts from the NFL lusting after him the way a pack of dogs might hunger for 330 pounds of fresh liver.
Or maybe he’ll make a run at the Heisman Trophy, which no interior offensive lineman, being perforce faceless, has ever won.
OK, so the odds on that off the board. So what? As Pace says, “I can say I’ve got a piece of Eddie George’s.”
Believe it. Because without Pace’s pancaking, there would have been no Heisman for Ohio State’s senior tailback last season. George ran past the opposition, both on and off the field and in the balloting, but he wasn’t alone. Much of the time, it was Pace opening the way. or setting the pace. In a 41-3 win over Illinois, George rushed for a school-record 314 yards. Not coincidentally, in that game Pace had 10 pancake blocks.
But ask Joe Hollis, Ohio State’s offensive coordinator, if he can come up with the definitive Pace play or series or game, and he can’t do it. He doesn't point to anything that happened in the Illinois game or any other game in Pace’s two seasons as a starter. Instead, he shakes his head.
“If you ask me about Orlando Pace, I wouldn’t say, for instance, let’s have a look at the Notre Dame game. I’d tell you to go in and pick out a game. You wouldn’t be in there very long. The other day, the coaches from Eastern Kentucky came to visit, and we were looking at the Iowa film. There’s (backup tailback) Pepe Pearson going 50 or 60 yards to the 2. But what catches your eye when you see this 5-11, 195 pound tailback going up the hash is this huge tackle matching him stride for stride.”
What did the visiting coaches have to say about that? “They were amazed,” according to Hollis.
Ohio State’s staff has been amazed ever since watching its first film of Pace as a high school junior. That season (1992), 6-5, 315-pound Korey Stringer was making his own mark as a Buckeye offensive tackle, starting in six straight games and earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. The next two years, Stringer was an All-American. After his junior season, he opted for the NFL and was a first-round selection, 24th overall, by the Minnesota Vikings. The chances of finding another talent like him seemed impossible.
And yet, says Hollis, “I thought immediately that he looks like another Korey Stringer. By the time Stringer was a high school senior, there was a unanimous thought among the OSU staff: ‘If we can get him to come to Ohio State, we project him as a starter in his first year.’”
Pace, athletic enough despite his girth to start and average 18 points for a Sandusky High basketball team that went to the regional semifinals before losing in Ohio’s high school final, played the usual games in keeping football recruiters out of his hair.
“I’d answer the phone and tell them I wasn’t home,” he says. “It was difficult. I’d be talking to one coach and I’d have a call waiting, and I’d have to make a choice right there.”
But the most important choice was fairly easy.
“I had it narrowed down to Ohio State or Michigan pretty early,” he says, “and one reason I came to Ohio State was Korey. I came in the summer and he kind of took me under his wing. What better thing for a young player to do but play under a great player the first year? I learned a lot from him. It was a great thing for me.”
But Pace didn’t play under him, he played on the same starting unit with him. He became the first freshman to start an entire season for Ohio State, 13 games and 322 minutes, third-highest among offensive players.
“We started with Fresno State (in the Kickoff Classic),” says Pace, “and once I got myself relaxed, it was just like an ordinary game, except that the guys were bigger and stronger. What you’ve got to do, I found, is uplift your level to their level.”
It’s been a totally uplifting experience. Pace followed in Stringer’s footsteps in 1994, becoming the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year, and again last year he was named a unanimous All-American.
Another Buckeye offensive tackle blazed an even greater trail in 1973. That year, John Hicks won both the Lombardi and Outland trophies and finished second to Penn State’s John Cappelletti in the run for the Heisman.
As far as Pace is concerned, as the old saying goes, here’s a man who was big when was still little. By the time he was in junior high school, Pace stood 6-4 and weight 275 pounds. Back then, he though he’d grow up to be a basketball player. But by the time he was starting on the line for Sandusky as a high school sophomore, he knew that football would be his route to fame. And while some might equate working in the trenches with hard labor, he has a refreshing outlook.
“Football is fun,” he says. “Right now it’s to a point that it’s extremely fun. During camp you might say to yourself, ‘Boy, I hate football.’ But once the game starts and you’re out in front of 90,000-plus people doing something you like, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”
Maybe it’s that exuberance, his passing for what he does, that distinguishes this potentially biggest of all big Buckeyes.
“All of the things keep falling in place for Orlando,” says Hollis. “It’s just like a flower that grows and grows and grows. It’s hard for anybody to handle him because he plays so much on the edge of formations and it’s difficult to put people in front of him. He is a dominating player. More than that, he’s a recognized dominating player. It’s easy to go to a game and recognize that in a tailback. But to have gained that much respect and recognition in just two seasons playing where he does, that’s just phenomenal.”