Where does one stand when Orlando Pace speaks?

He talks in such a low, Shaquille O'Nealish whisper that there is no perfect place. Should Pace swivel his head to the right when the inevitable will-you-stay-in-school question comes up, those standing at his left flank are in trouble.

And it takes a road map and a good ration of water to get to the other side of the gifted junior offensive tackle. By the time the journey is made around the 6-foot-6, 330-pound Pace, the Rose Bowl could be over.

And maybe his Ohio State career. Then again, maybe not.

But that's getting ahead of the story. The remarkable thing is that there is another Buckeye bigger than 21-year-old Orlando Pace.

"We have a tackle on our team that's bigger than Orlando," Coach John Cooper reports. "This guy is so big, that if anybody fouls up in practice, they run three laps around him."

But Cooper is fond of Pace.

"Orlando is a fun person to be around," he said. "He's like a big teddy bear."

And speaking of bears . . .

"I was joking when he was here the other day," Cooper said. "I said he was 6-6, weighed about 325, 330. Benches 400 pounds. Runs a 4.9 40, and goes bear hunting with a switch."

Tickle Me Orlando, he is not.

You think mothers and fathers were happy to get those Elmo toys to give as Christmas presents? The best gift Cooper could receive in 1997 would be not seeing Pace on ESPN's NFL draft-day show from New York.

The last time Pace traveled to New York was to the Downtown Athletic Club for the Heisman Trophy presentation. There he joined Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer, Iowa State running back Troy Davis and the winner, Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel.

Pace finished fourth, getting a share of the spotlight for hard-working but mostly anonymous interior linemen.

Then, at the following news conference, he stunned nearly everyone by saying he was going to stay in Columbus for his senior season.

Since then, no one is quite sure whether he was kidding. Pace does not sound as decisive on that subject now as he did then.

"It's one of those situations where it's a thinking process, and I have to evaluate my situation," Pace said the other day, adding that he will decide after Wednesday's Rose Bowl game against Arizona State.

Not much is left for Pace to accomplish in college, considering his list of accomplishments. Among them:

--He became the first player to win the Lombardi Award twice. He is the third Buckeye to have won the country's top award for linemen, joining nose guard Jim Stillwagon in 1970 and linebacker Chris Spielman in 1987.

--He is the 10th player to have won both the Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy in the same year. The Outland is given to the nation's outstanding interior lineman.

--He became the first offensive lineman since 1960 to win the Chicago Tribune's Silver Football, given each year to the most valuable player in the Big Ten Conference.

Pace reached this rarefied level by not allowing a sack all season and he recorded 74 pancake blocks, creating havoc on the field and giving the Ohio State sports information department a clever marketing tool.

Understandably, his teammates are impressed. Cornerback Shawn Springs had to pause when asked if Pace had one bad game in college.

"Maybe his freshman year, at Penn State," Springs said. "But you have to realize, a bad game for him is a good game for a lot of other people."

To push his Heisman hopes, school officials mailed Pace pancake magnets to voters, a stack of pancakes with a glob of butter melting down the side.

Pace, a man of few but well-chosen words, laughed when asked how he felt about making the pancake block a larger part of sporting lore.

"I guess it was there before," he said. "It's a good thing."

What else is left after turning college opponents into breakfast food? The scrambled-egg magnet?

"Doing history-making-type things," Pace said. "Going to the Rose Bowl, winning the national championship. Probably every dream, [what] every college athlete wants. [The Heisman] is not really in the back of my mind. It's a hard thing for an offensive lineman to do. It'll probably never be done. It's just one of those situations."

Cooper, of course, can find many reasons to stump for a return engagement by Pace.

"Orlando Pace should stay another year," he said. "We've had more football players leave early than anybody in the country. I believe it's nine, including two, Robert Smith and Danny Wilkinson, that had two years left. None of those guys, in my opinion, were ready to go the NFL.

" . . . It's mental and physical maturity. [Pace] would benefit from another year in our weight program. He could graduate from Ohio State. He could be a captain. Play in the East-West game, the Senior Bowl game. Those are the reasons, in my opinion, that he should stay. These should be the happiest times of his life.

"If he's a first-round draft choice now, he will be a higher first-round draft choice next year. So I don't think there's any question he should stay. I'm not saying he's going to stay. But if he asks me, that's exactly what I'll tell him."

NFL draft expert Joel Buchsbaum of Pro Football Weekly comes down on the other side of the issue, saying he doesn't know of any advantage Pace would receive by staying at Ohio State another season.

"The media always wants to make comparisons," Buchsbaum said. "No one can compare to someone that dominating, that good. And what he does is at 335 [pounds]. Anthony Munoz played at 290 in college. That's 45 pounds lighter."

There's that name again. All too often, highly regarded offensive linemen come out of college and are called the next Anthony Munoz, considered by some perhaps the best offensive lineman to play in the NFL.

"Every year there's a lineman who is supposed to be the next Anthony Munoz," the real Anthony Munoz said in a Times interview earlier this year.

Buchsbaum had his own 1997 prediction for Pace, providing he does make himself available for the draft.

"I think he can start his first season in the NFL, and he can be a Pro Bowl player his second year," he said. "He's unique."



ARIZONA STATE (11-0) vs. OHIO STATE (10-1)

Jan. 1, 1:30

Channel 7

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