COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -After losing three players early to the NFL draft each of the last two years, Ohio State may be about to take another big hit.
Three juniors, all on defense, are currently listed by several draft analysts as being possible first-round picks next spring.
Only one of the three didn't waver this week during preparations for Michigan when asked if he were contemplating making himself available for the draft. Cornerback Malcolm Jenkins said he was definitely staying.
``I love Ohio State,'' he said. ``I'll be here for a while.''
But even that was said in a dismissive way, batting away the question like he might one of Chad Henne's passes.
Neither of the other two say they're even thinking about the decision yet. They say they are focusing all their energies on the seventh-ranked Buckeyes' game on Saturday against the No. 23 Wolverines.
``It's up in the air, really,'' defensive end Vernon Gholston said. ``This is my junior season. I have another season. I could come back next year, I could not. For the most part, it's just focusing on this Michigan game right here.''
All-American linebacker James Laurinaitis said earlier this season that there was no question that he would return for his final year of eligibility. He stopped short of saying that this week.
``I haven't thought about that at all,'' he said. ``That's something that I'm not going to think about during the season. It's just nothing but a distraction and all I can do is focus on what I can do against Michigan.''
Should he come out, Laurinaitis is ranked among the top defenders in the draft, with most experts pegging him as one of the top linebackers. Almost the same thing could be said for Jenkins and Gholston at their positions.
A year ago, tailback Antonio Pittman said late in the season that he wanted to come back for his senior season so he could win the Heisman Trophy. Then he surprised many in December when he announced that he was exploring the possibility of making the jump to the pros.
Wide receiver Anthony Gonzalez also said several times during the 2006 season that he enjoyed being a student-athlete and that he knew he could always go to the NFL when he wanted. But numerous draft predictions listed him as going in the first round and he eventually changed his mind.
Gonzalez and another junior wide receiver, Ted Ginn Jr., went in the first round (Ginn with the ninth pick, by Miami, Gonzalez at No. 32, by Indianapolis). Pittman was taken in the fourth round by New Orleans.
Safety Michael Doss and wide receiver Joey Galloway are the only two Ohio State juniors who could've gone high in the draft but elected to stay for their final season in college.
The current Buckeyes are a relatively young team and will graduate only two senior starters on offense (right tackle Kirk Barton and fullback Dionte Johnson) and one on defense (linebacker Larry Grant).
Few players ever announce their plans before the end of the regular season. Sometimes wins and losses influence their decision.
Linebacker Marcus Freeman is not considered a possibility to go high in the draft, should he elect to make himself available. That's just as well, he said.
``Right after that (last) game you start to consider it, but I picture myself playing another season here,'' the junior said. ``I remember talking to my dad and he said, 'That's one thing I don't want you to give any consideration, is taking care of your family, because that's why your father is here.' My mother has a job and she'll be taken care of, so that's definitely not going to be a consideration to go pro. Like I said, I plan on being here next year.''
Twenty-four Ohio State players have jumped to the NFL draft before completing their eligibility since 1992. Of that total, 17 were first-round picks.
Many have gone on to long and profitable pro careers, including Robert Smith, Terry Glenn, Shawn Springs, Orlando Pace and David Boston.
Coach Jim Tressel sits down with potential early draftees in December and discusses their prospects. The NCAA permits players to file paperwork to get an evaluation from NFL scouts as to where a player might be drafted, to help with their decision on whether to come out early.

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