Linebacker U.

By Kyle Rowland on August 16, 2012 at 10:00a

Penn State long ago staked claim to the moniker “Linebacker U.” And why not, they’ve certainly had a long and illustrious list of great players at that position. But if any school has a right to be braggadocios about a history of producing great linebackers, it’s Ohio State.

The definition of a linebacker and a Buckeye.

For years, the men in the middle have upheld the proud tradition of the Silver Bullets. Twenty Buckeye linebackers have been named First-Team All-Americans, from Ike Kelley in 1964 to James Laurinaitis in 2008. Since Kelley’s selection in ’64, an Ohio State linebacker has earned All-American honors a shade over every two years.

And the list isn’t just a flavor of the year. It includes revered Buckeyes who are some of college football’s all-time greats.

  • Ike Kelley
  • Randy Gradishar
  • Tom Cousineau
  • Pepper Johnson
  • Chris Spielman
  • Steve Tovar
  • Andy Katzenmoyer
  • Na’il Diggs
  • A.J. Hawk
  • James Laurinaitis

Under Jim Tressel, the list grew by three, with Matt Wilhelm joining Hawk and Laurinaitis. That doesn’t include the impact players who weren’t named All-Americans, such as Bobby Carpenter, Anthony Schlegel, Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.

Stout linebacker play during the Tressel era contributed to a 10-year stretch of excellence on defense, which also led to an unprecedented decade of team success: one national championship, two additional appearances in the title game and seven Big Ten championships, including six consecutive. One-hundred and six wins were had by Ohio State from 2001-2010 with just 22 losses.

But last year that dominant force took a leave of absence. Now head coach Urban Meyer and co-defensive coordinators Luke Fickell and Everett Withers are tasked with putting the product back together again.

The Big Ten Network has been re-airing the best games of the 2011 season throughout the summer. Two of those contests involved Ohio State – Nebraska and Michigan – and the Buckeyes lost both. Much to the chagrin of Meyer, the defense was largely at fault for both losses.

At Nebraska, a second-half collapse of epic proportions unfolded. Ohio State led 27-6 before the flood gates opened and Nebraska roared back for a 34-27 victory. It should be noted, though, that Braxton Miller suffered an injury in the third quarter and did not return.

In the Michigan game, the defense surrendered 40 points and 444 yards – 277 on the ground – to the Wolverines. Quarterback Denard Robinson (170 yards) and running back Fitzgerald Toussaint (120 yards) shredded the OSU defense.

It’s enough to cause a new coach to wake up in cold sweats.

Sabino has been one step behind. It's now or never in 2012.

“On purpose I’ve tried not to watch a lot of film,” Meyer said. “That wasn’t the Ohio State defense I’m used to seeing. For a decade they had one of the best defenses in America. We did not have a good defense last year. That’s what I saw.”

But Meyer keyed in on the linebacker play specifically as the perpetrator in the poor defensive play.

"You think about the last 10 years of football who's played linebacker at Ohio State, I'd put that group against any group in America," Meyer said. "Maybe in college football history. That wasn't the Ohio State defense I'm used to seeing. They have to play better."

Etienne Sabino, Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant will lead the charge to restore the glory of seasons past. Those three names aren’t likely to grab headlines, but the talent and potential is immense.

Sabino has had an up-and-down career at Ohio State after being one of the nation’s top recruits coming out of Dr. Krop High School in Miami. After redshirting in 2010, he was one of the top tacklers on the team with 62 total tackles last season. He added two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss for good measure. Sabino closed out the year on a high, as well, earning team MVP honors in the Gator Bowl against his homestate school in front of his homestate fans. 

“He has to be one of those guys,” Meyer said. “He’s a nice guy and he hasn’t played to his potential yet. He’s doing everything he can and I trust that he will. He had a tremendous spring and he’s an incredible person.”

Instead of hiding behind a set of excuses, or as Meyer commonly puts it “dog ate my homework,” Sabino took his career head on, referring to it as “not by the book.” It’s the future, though, like his head coach, that Sabino is focused on.

"I'm excited to be where I'm at,” he said. “If could do it all over again, I'd still come to Ohio State. I love it here."

And for good reason. Despite an underwhelming three years to this point, Sabino’s coaches and teammates still very much believe in him. The leadership he provides in the linebackers’ room and foundation on the field is invaluable for Fickell, who doubles as his position coach, and Withers.

“We have this saying, ‘You act like a man, you get treated like a man,’” Sabino said. “And that’s something I think we thrive on.

Year 2 is Grant's time to seize to spotlight. 

“You take care of your business, you do what you have to do and you’ll be fine. If you mess around, you mess up, there’s going to be consequences.”

He’s also a sophomore, but Curtis Grant’s freshman season was a microcosm of Sabino’s career: disappointing. Grant was a consensus high school All-American and was expected to make an immediate impact last year. He had two tackles. Not quite the impact he wanted to make.

Grant admitted that the speed of the game overwhelmed him on the field and that he even considered giving up football because he was so depressed. But Meyer’s hiring breathed new life into Grant.

Reinvigorated, he took spring drills by storm and steadily moved up the depth chart until he was listed as the starting middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense. It’s been a remarkable eight-month turnaround.

“He was the first guy to come and say, ‘I wasn’t ready,’” Meyer said. “So (Fickell) spent time with (Grant). It’s really helping (Grant). He’s had flashes.”

The one proven commodity at linebacker is sophomore Ryan Shazier. He started just three games last season but still made 57 tackles, the most by a freshman since Katzenmoyer’s 86 in an epic 1996 campaign. Shazier has proven he can compete at that level, never more so than in his first career start when he tallied 15 tackles against Penn State. In the three games Shazier started last season, he accumulated 33 tackles.

"He was a leader from the day he came in,” Fickell said. “He really has that natural ability to do that. He's going to be in a situation where he has to do it a lot more, so we're going to push him to do that. He’s definitely a guy that if you try to evaluate how important is football to him, it's up there, and it shows. It wasn't just the way he finished. It was what you saw as a young kid and I think that's what we're trying to see from a lot of other guys. You want to see what guys have that 'it' to them."

Even a knee injury couldn’t keep Shazier off the field. In the first half of the Michigan game, he went down with a left knee strain but returned. Though slowed, Shazier still did everything he could to make an impact. Still, Meyer felt his play could have been more pleasing.

“Dog ate my homework,” the head coach said. “He didn’t play very well. Linebackers have to play banged up a little bit. The great ones do.”

Shazier is a talent Meyer is familiar with. A native of Plantation, Fla., Shazier committed to Meyer and the Florida Gators, but had a change of heart when Meyer resigned. Now they’re back together again.

The next Ohio State linebacker All-American? Many say yes. 

The production level Shazier exhibited last season, and especially in November, caught everyone’s eye, Shazier included, but after watching film in the offseason, he tended to key in on the errors he made.

"Even when I was watching the Florida and the Penn State games, I see a lot of gaps I should have filled and a lot of tackles I missed,” Shazier said.

Learning from those mistakes will be key for not only Shazier but also his running mates. Behind them is a who’s who of unproven players. Storm Klein’s dismissal in July left the Buckeyes with no experienced backups at the linebacker position.

"We don't know that we truly have three starters yet, let alone have depth," Fickell said. "That's my biggest concern. We have to develop depth. I'm looking for those six guys that you can lie on the pillow at night saying they're going to give you everything they've got, that football is that important to him that they're going to figure out a way to be successful."

Several freshmen are making a push for playing time and to put Fickell at ease, most notably Jamal Marcus and David Perkins.

"He had a heck of a scrimmage yesterday," Meyer said about Perkins on Sunday at media day. "He’s a fly and hit guy, which we want. He’ll play this year. How much, he’s still working on that."

Some are surprised by the sudden impact Meyer’s first Columbus recruiting haul is having. Even Perkins is one of those flummoxed, but the rookie emergence came about because of the establishment of a strong work ethic.

“We have a lot of (freshmen) here that all work hard,” Perkins said. “Before any of us got here we were training to be good and come on campus and make an impression. But when we got here and actually strapped up and laced up, I don’t think any of us expected to play the way we do.

“We all train to play well, but you can’t imagine playing as well as we’ve been playing. We still have stuff we need to work on, but we’re high competition and high effort guys. That’s what sets us apart. We come in here and compete.”

There are two weeks to solidify a second-team spot and begin a new cycle of All-American linebackers.


Comments Show All Comments

hodge's picture

I've been meaning to do some research on this, checking the validity of Penn State's claim to the "Linebacker U" title.  Seems like the Buckeyes have completely owned that since the '90s Katzenmoyer, Diggs, Wilhelm, Hawk, and Laurenitis to Posluzny and Arrington?), I can't imagine that we haven't really owned it since Woody's heyday of the '60s.  Anyone have any evidence either way? It'd be much appreciated.

los_bux08's picture

If you want to base it on players drafted by the NFL you can check out this database:
You can use the categories option to sort out players by position and school (along with other options).

AJBor41's picture

Not to defend PSU on this argument, but Bowman, Connor, Lee and Hali aren't too bad either

Buckeyejason's picture

Hali was a defensive end.


AJBor41's picture

True, so if this is only a college debate, then nevermind, but if it moves to NFL he's currently listed as an LB I believe

ccollins0325's picture

Then we have to add Vrabel

AJBor41's picture

Good point... works for me!

TheBadOwl's picture

They have Posluzny, Bowman, Lee, Connor, Arrington and maybe a few more.

When I walked in this morning and saw the flag was at half mast I thought, "Alright, another bureaucrat ate it." but then I saw it was Li'l Sebastian. Half mast is too high. Show some damn respect.

ccollins0325's picture

Here is a PSU fan site that has a page dedicated to the Linebackers.
WARNING: Not safe for anyone with taste in design. If you backup to the main page, it's not safe for anyone that may experience seizures.

ShowThemOhiosHere's picture

I laugh every time I hear a State Penner say "Linebacker U".  Not that they haven't had some talent there over the years, but our linebackers over the years have been at least as good if not better.

Class of 2010.

Ken-Yon Rambo's picture

Agreed.  Even in more recent years, Homan/Rolle/Hines were a really good trio, albeit underrated.  
Last year there was quite a drop-off however.  

How firm they friendship...

Buckeyejason's picture

I have to say USC has to be LB-U as of late. 
Rivers, Mauluga, Cushing, Matthews, Tatupu..all starters in the league I believe.


William's picture

Laurinaitis: 376 tackles, 8 sacks, 5 INTs.
Cushing: 323 tackles, 9.5 sacks, 6 INTs.
Matthews: 161 tackles, 29.5 sacks, 4 INTs.
Rey Maualaga: 217 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 INTs.
Laurinaitis has the most tackles by far, Cushing's numbers are extremely good too. Matthews' on the other hand are indicative of how overrated he is as a linebacker, he's an overglorified pass-rusher. Maualaga's number just pale in comparison to Cushing's or Laurinaitis's. While USC has more starters, Ohio State has the best linebacker of the group in my mind.

Buckeyejason's picture

I can't argue with that.


DJ Byrnes's picture

Cushing's numbers are also PED-enhanced too, let's not forget that.
I knew Laurinitis was a rock in the league, didn't know he was balling like that tho.

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

BrewstersMillions's picture

No he isn't over rated. You are putting him up as an LB and saying he's over rated. Yes technically he plays the LB position in that his hand is seldom in the dirt and falls under the LB numerical scheme in the NFL but make no mistake abou it... Matthews IS a pass rusher, was drafted to be a pass rusher and is used and expected to be a Pass Rusher.  He isn't expected to lead his team his tackles, he's expected to (and does) get after QB's and live in the opposition's backfield. He is a rush end in a modified 3-4 system so his expectations should be that of a pass rusher, not of a regular WLB or SLB.

Keith's picture

So many people forget Rick Middleton.  He played alongside Gradishar and was damn good he was drafted ahead of him in the 1st rd ('74).  
Wasn't a very good pro but neither was Cousineau.

Scott's picture

Ohio State: THE Linebacker U.

Class of 2008

William's picture

This would be one Hell of a shirt, and man would it piss people off.

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

That would be a great shirt.  Perhaps I'll stroll over to the Black Shoe Diaries and drop that bomb over there and watch the inmates riot since they are a bit touchy these days!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

Doc's picture

Boy, I really wish you and I were neighbors.  I think we would be best of friends. :)

CJDPHoS Member

The Official DDS of 11W

Arizona_Buckeye's picture

I'm friends with anybody possessing a deviant sense of humor and a well stocked bar!!!

The best thing about Pastafarianism? It is not only acceptable, but advisable, to be heavily sauced

ccollins0325's picture

Apparently, Linebacker U is a trademark (service mark) of the Pennsylvania State University (2005)
I guess if they couldn't earn it, they would buy it.

OSUBias's picture

That's ok we'll just look away and pretend we didn't see that...what's that? Oh PSU trademarked that too?

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

Buckeyejason's picture

We gotta give them a little credit, they've had a great list their as well recently:
Bowman, Connor, Lee, Pusluzky(sp?), and that guy who's still there who was pretty good last year..can't think of his name?


BuckeyeSki's picture

Michael "Made of Glass" Mauti

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

BrewstersMillions's picture

Mauti sucks. His whole Steve Lattimer, I'm Mr. Intensty act works well for the idiots in State College but it wears thin on me. If there is one thing Urban Meyer is incredibly good at from an offensive scheme point of view-its isolating the least athletic or skilled players on an opposing defense and running traffic at him countless times. He did it to OSU and Jamario O'Neal and he will most definatley do it to Mauti. Nothing will give me as much joy, however, as the Michigan game when Meyer looks at Jordan Effing Kovacs and just laughs. Michigan fans are going to be forced to watch their knight in white, scrappy armor get cut to pieces by various zone reads and crossing routes. He has no business playing Safety and Meyer is going to harshly remind him and Michigan of that.

Buckeyejason's picture

No it wasn't mauti


Buckeyejason's picture

Yes thats it. Thx


CowCat's picture

So, we don't need to say 'U'.   We can trademark 'THE' in all caps.
THE Linebacker University
THE Ohio State Fair
THE Ohio State Flag

"We get paid to score touchdowns, not kick field goals"
-- Urban Meyer

thorvath22's picture

THE actually means Tradition Honor and Excellence.

703Buckeye's picture

While not an all-time great, Marcus Freeman should have been mentioned as an impact player in this article. He was great when paired up with Laurinaitis.

"Attack the Strong, Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead!"
-Former OSU S&C Coach Lichter

flipbuckeye's picture

Beat me to it. Didn't get as much talk or exposure playing next to Laurinaitis, but the guy was a quiet beast.

Nutbuck1959's picture

I don't really care who owns the "title" of linebacker U.  I'll take the guys we've had over the years over anybody else anyday.

Northbrook's picture

Kyle, nice article but please don't list great Buckeye linebackers without including Marcus Marek.

wjpalumbo's picture

My thoughts exactly!  I believe he went on to play in the USFL and has the most tackles in OSU history. 



Buckeyeboy's picture

Thank you for mentioning Marcus Marek. How sweet was the solo-tackle he made at the goal line to keep ttun from winning The Game? Am I dreaming, or was he a true freshman at the time?

Go Bucks!

TatumRuled's picture

Yes Marcus! Before I fully read this article, I scanned it looking for his name and was bummed when it wasn't there.
When I was 8 years old, I got his autograph. He was the only Buckeye player that I ever asked for(or wanted) an autograph. And I still have it.

"Hell, Woody didn't recruit me; he recruited my mother!" -Jack Tatum                       

painterlad's picture

To err is human. Really sucking requires having yellow stripes on your helmet.

ARMYBUCK's picture

Im with Northbrook here.  You cant have this conversation without mentioning Marcus Marek.  I know were talking more recent probably but hes definitely got to be name dropped.

AGL's picture

Agree, Marek was everywhere. Poss.  still career or single season leader for tackles. 


thorvath22's picture

Bobby Carpenter

Also are there anymore Boren's left? A Boren woukd make an excellent linebacker.

703Buckeye's picture

After Jacoby, there's only a girl left. Though, I'm sure she'd be tougher than some opposing lb's the Buckeyes will face this fall.
Also, if you didn't know, Zach was recruited as a lb'er and moved to fullback.

"Attack the Strong, Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead!"
-Former OSU S&C Coach Lichter

OSUBias's picture

Our current fullback Boren was a LB and was recruited by almost all of the other schools to be a LB IIRC, but OSU liked him as a FB. Interesting to think, given how we all gush about Urban's recruiting and knock the previous regime's, that he probably doesn't get an offer from Urban. He wouldn't have fit the LB mold that Urban recruits and Urban doesn't do fullbacks.

7 yards and a cloud of dust is a beautiful thing

labuck's picture

Nothing for Mike Bellisari...He was instrumental for that defense...without him Katzenmoyer wouldnt have known his assignments...and he was pretty good too

luckynutz's picture

Think you mean greg belisari. And I was thinking the same thing. He doesn't get enough credit for being as stout as he was. Same with jerry rudzinski. They were both solid. Then this kid from westerville showed up, took archies number and went beast mode. Overshadowed the play of the guys on either side of him. And cie grant was no slouch either.

rdubs's picture

Larry Grant is also a stud and the Niners defense didn't skip a beat with him replacing Patrick Willis the last couple games last year.  I hope that dude gets a shot to start, he is a freak athlete.

snoodogg22's picture

Cie Grant, he was pretty solid wasnt he?

Tough times never last, tough people do

rdubs's picture

he actually moved to cornerback by his senior year.  That was a corner blitz that got Dorsey in the championship.  Talk about dialing up the pressure in a big situation.  Too bad we never did that against Florida in '07-'08...

faux_maestro's picture

He was a corner his Jr. year, moved back to linebacker as a senior.

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

ih8rolltyde's picture

Cie Grant was a weak side lb and was drafted by the saints as such, I believe.

****igan smells like old water that hot dogs were boiled in.  FACT

Sgt. Elias's picture

Matt "The Kaiser" Wilhelm was always a favorite of mine. He could lay the wood. 

"Okay -- I've got an El Camino full of rampage here."