Vacancies: Seven Openings on Ohio State's Defense Highlighted by Linebackers

By Kyle Rowland on March 8, 2013 at 10:00a

When you lose seven starters, one might be inclined to think often about all the missing pieces. But defensive coordinator Luke Fickell hasn’t had any time to reflect on John Simon, Zach Boren, Johnathan Hankins, Etienne Sabino and the rest of Ohio State’s departures on defense. 

Fickell isn't worried about the seven departing Buckeyes.In two days, Fickell has seen progress in the Silver Bullets. 

Instead, he’s been more preoccupied with worrying about who’s replacing them. Through two days of spring practice, little has materialized, but a whole host of players will get an opportunity to plug holes.

“Energy is contagious. Effort is contagious,” Fickell said. “I can honestly say that’s what I’m excited about. We have some guys in leadership positions with a lot of confidence and when they have confidence, it exudes confidence to others.

“There’s a lot of good-looking guys in shorts. We kind of hold our opinions until we get into some pads and play real football.”

That won’t be for another few weeks, as the Buckeyes now go on hiatus due to spring break. When they reconvene, Fickell’s main focus will be dedicated to the linebacker position. Two new starters will emerge on April 13 and they’ll both be inexperienced because, well, that’s all there is to choose from.

The young talent includes junior Curtis Grant, whose time to make an impact is dwindling. There’s also sophomores Camren Williams, Josh Perry, David Perkins and Jamal Marcus and freshmen Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson.

“We have the most pressure on us out of anyone on the defense,” Perry said. “Even young guys on the D-line definitely played more than our linebackers (last season) who are young. We’ve got to step up.”

Overcoming the loss of talented players is part of being a big-time program. Reloading is the next step. With so much young talent, Fickell is enthusiastic about the possibilities at linebacker.

“There’s a lot of guys with a lot of energy,” he said. “Some young guys that are really, really exciting.”

The one sure thing Ohio State does have at linebacker – Ryan Shazier – has an unknown timetable regarding his return. Shazier has been battling a sports hernia. But that doesn’t mean he’s been absent or quiet during practice.

In two full seasons at Ohio State, Shazier hasn’t only advanced into one of the nation’s premier linebackers; he’s also become a student of the game. His expertise has allowed him to coach up his teammates and offer insight on the intricacies of the position.

“You see all your guys out here grinding, working hard, doing tough workouts and all you can do is watch,” Shazier said. “It really sucks, but you can’t do anything about it.”

I'm a man, I'm a linebacker!Ryan Shazier played half the season with an injury.

The injury actually occurred last season during the Nebraska game, but Shazier soldiered on the rest of the season with nary a peep. It’s that kind of dedication and toughness that led Grant to keeping an upbeat attitude, even though his playing time evaporated in the middle of the season.

Witnessing Shazier and John Simon’s grit and Zach Boren’s selflessness were lessons that it took more than just showing up and walking on the field. 

“The will and the want-to has never been a question,” Fickell said. “It’s just the ability to continue to mature. All these players have different things going on in their lives that help them mature. I’ve seen some of the things he’s gone through and I think this has really been a positive.”

Two years worth of adversity has added a hardened shell to Grant. The experiences have helped shape him on and off the field. Entering Year 3, he looks back at the previous two seasons with knowledge to help him forge a new direction.

“My goal is to not get complacent,” Grant said. “I just want to keep working hard and do everything the coaches ask me to. My biggest motivation is my family. My dad always told me to carry my last name well and that’s exactly what I'm trying to do.”

Ohio State is likely to play nickel in most games, which has turned into the team’s base defense in recent seasons. That means only two linebackers on the field, with one certainly being Shazier.

“College football has changed into more of a speed and spread out game, so you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re going to have more than three linebackers ready for every game, so just in case somebody goes down, we need a three-linebacker set, four-linebacker set.”

Searching for the right formula will be a linebacker by committee operation during the spring, Fickell said. Eventually the pieces will fall into place.

“With Sabino and Zach leaving, everyone is going to have an opportunity to show what they can do,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of competition at the Mike position, and that’s a position I’m interested in. I’ve been working hard to learn the playbook and improve at the position because as the Mike you need to know where everyone is and what’s going on at all times.”

Just like Fickell when it comes to the defense. 


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BuckeyeNinja's picture

Fire Coach Fickell

albinomosquito's picture

it's hard to make an assessment of his body of work based on 1 year at his current position.. last year was up and down.. down in the beginning, up towards the end.. there's a lot of talent there this year.. let's see what he can do with it..

drumsontheside's picture

You probably could've avoided some of the downvotes if you had put one or two rational thoughts backing up your statement. But you didn't.



GoldenBearBuckeye's picture

There is not a need to back up an opinion that Luke Fickell is not a good coach considering that it is an implicit assumption that the posters on this thread all watched our linebackers last year, and given the fact that it is widely understood that no healthy LB in spring practice has seen any meaningful snaps despite the opportunity to develop them last year.
While the italic font is apparently meant to lampoon those of the opinion that Fickell is a bad coach, the sentiment is shared by at least a plurality of a knowledgable fan base.

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

I watched a career College FB transform into a solid College MLB in a very short time last year.  Whoever coached him was pretty frickin good imo.

GoldenBearBuckeye's picture

I enjoyed watching my favorite Boren brother greatly.
If you want to give credit for coaching instead of the kid's superior instincts and guts, then give the props to his high school coach.  Now if it was Fickell's IDEA to move him, then a little credit would be due to him, but by all accounts it was the kid's idea.

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

By all accounts it was Meyer's idea.  If you really think Boren was able to make the transition based on his skillset and instincts alone thats your perogative, but I disagree.  I've never seen a player be able to play at a high level at Ohio State based on ability alone.  If it were that easy, we wouldn't be paying coaches what we do.

Buckeye06's picture

Hoiw can a plurality of the knowledgable fan base say Fickell isn't good at coaching Lbers if he was that position coach from 2004-2010, one of the greatest runs of OSU lbers ever (maybe the best with Hawk, Carpenter, A schlegal, Homan, JL, Freeman, Rolle)
That is some serious NFL talent he developed.  You can curse him for his ability to call plays or manage the entire D, but I'd trust that guy with a LBer over a lot of others

GoldenBearBuckeye's picture

Fair enough, though some of the same folks who agree with you are also those saying he wasn't a bad head coach, wasn't given a chance etc. etc.
Additionally, there is no way he gets credit for Boren from me.
The LB corps FOR WHATEVER REASON was badly lacking, and Boren was plugged in with little or no substantive contact with Fickell

CTBuckeyeFan's picture
"It's been a long 72 hours," Boren said. "[Defensive coordinator Luke] Fickell has been great, him and I have been staying at the [practice facility] until 9 at night, I've been coming in early for practice just to try to learn the whole defense.
I guess that depends on your definition of substantive.

avail31678's picture

Awesome find.  You win.  The only thing that's not "substantive" is whether Fickell is a terrible coach or not.  VERY few people would say they had major problems with our defense before the 2011 year.  Sure there were some deficiencies and shortcomings here and there, but by and large, we had a top 10 or top 5 D many years in a row.  Fickell was a part of that.  I don't know how much a part of it, but I do not think there is enough evidence to support a definitive statement that Fickell is a lousy coach and deserves to be fired.  I cannot recall a Buckeye team so decimated by injuries as our squad last year, especially on D.

GoldenBearBuckeye's picture

Three whole days!!
I think the only things proved is that there was very little coaching of Mr. Boren as well as to solidify his reputation as being a loyal kid.
Whether someone is a bad coach is generally not backed by evidence so much as by opinion.
6-7 as head coach and 49 points to Indiana are objective pieces of evidence, but don't technically constitute a statement

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

3 days before the game he was interviewed after in the article, is it your opinion that after those 3 days the LB coach stopped coaching Boren?
Boren visibly progressed every week at LB, that was a tribute to Fickell's coaching and Boren's football IQ.  The LB's have always been the strong point of our D, save last year, and Fickell has been their coach for the better part of 8 years. The list of players he's developed rivals almost any other position coach in CFB.  Tressel and Urban Meyer both feel he's capable and qualified.
All of that TREMENDOUSLY outweighs 1 49 point game against Indiana.
Unless you think Meyer can't evaluate coaching talent, that is.

GoldenBearBuckeye's picture

That is a good point CT. 
While it is likely that you are right (and it is VERY likely that Meyer does not think he is terrible) that Meyer wanted the stability and good will that came with retaining Fickell.    

buckeye4life050233's picture

I think he is a good position coach but at D-coordinator definitely not his strength.  His play-calling is very predictable and therefore easy to game-plan against....

smith5568's picture

I stated this exact point in a post a month or so ago. Anyone who questions Fickells ability to coach linebackers has no idea what they are talking about. He is learning as a defensive coordinator and had to mesh with withers, give him another year or so and I think you will see that he is more than capable. 

GABuckeye's picture

I'm pretty sure this person was making a joke, hence the italics.  Everyone was jumping the gun last year saying he should get fired, which is what this is in reference to.

Run_Fido_Run's picture

Yes, the comment above was sarcastic.

German Buckeye's picture

Is italics used for sarcasm font now?  Did i miss the memo?

mrinder83's picture

On what grounds......the man never really called the defensive plays when he was co coord under tress.  So, last year was basically his first year calling plays.  He also needed to time to gel with withers.  His defense looked ugly earlier in the season through the mid point, but as with little experienced players it takes little experienced coaches time to hit their groove.  When he started hitting that groove towards the end of the season, there was not a better defense in the conference and they were to the point that they could probably of contended against most of the good teams in college football, minus a select few.  I liked what i saw out of Fick at the end of the year.  If Grant can finally solidify himself as a starter and the younger backers continue to grow and start to contribute then this has the makings to be a damn good defense to go along probably one of the best offenses in the country


Run_Fido_Run's picture

Excellent piece, Kyle.
I'm excited that Grant - who was always a physical specimen but now looks like an absolute beast - is maturing, learning by experience what it takes to succeed at the higher levels. Now, if Grant also enhances his field-awareness and understanding of schemes, etc., he could turn into a nasty, dynamic playmaker for the Silver Bullets.
And that's ultimately what defensive coaches pine for . . . a gifted, physical freak with ultra high-side potential who is able to put it all together.
Side note: I was a bit uncertain, at first read, which player/coach Kyle was quoting in the second paragraph below (I'm a space cadet), in part because the quote seemed like something a coach would say:

Ohio State is likely to play nickel in most games, which has turned into the team’s base defense in recent seasons. That means only two linebackers on the field, with one certainly being Shazier.
“College football has changed into more of a speed and spread out game, so you never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re going to have more than three linebackers ready for every game, so just in case somebody goes down, we need a three-linebacker set, four-linebacker set.”

After I thought about it for a few seconds, I realized that since Kyle had just mentioned Shazier as the last word in the previous paragraph, the "he" in the immediately following parapraph was Shazier. "Duhhh, Fido got confused, yes he did" [owner pats Fido's head].
Anyway, my point wasn't to talk about how absent-minded Fido is, but to say that Shazier is a smart dude! His quote tricked me into thinking that it was coming from a football sage. Okay, it's not that hard to trick Fido, but still . . .

Hovenaut's picture

The inexeperience noted, but I'm about as excited to see this defense as I am the offense. Said it yesterday, really pulling for Grant. I think he's getting his head on straight, and hope that translates into big results on the field.

No matter the formation, or what lineups/rotations settle into the DL and secondary, the linebackers have to anchor, and the talent is there.

Boxley's picture

The good thing is, that nearly everyone is equal right now, so it is wide open for the guy that wants is the most, by having put in the time,in weight room, video room, and classroom to grab one the open spots. It is going to be a hell of a competitive spring, fighting for the starting role and the the number two spot, both will play a great deal in this defense.

"...the man who really counts in the world is the doer, not the mere critic-the man who actually does the work, even if roughly and imperfectly, not the man who only talks or writes about how it ought to be done." President T. Roosevelt

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

I'm really rooting for Curtis Grant to succeeed, I wanna see him and Steve Miller share the Fragel Award this year.

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

I understand the inexperience, but I believe the type of athleticism that Urban has brought in will still allow us to be successful.  When you bring in studs they're expected to contribute as freshmen.  I believe all of the LB's from 2012 and 2013 have enough athleticism and raw physical skills to allow for a little inexperience.  As the season progresses they will become more polished in their game and will mature into great LB's.  I look forward to seeing these guys mature and make plays for OSU in the future. 

yrro's picture

I think they will always succeed eventually. Remember that with a raw defense Florida had 4 losses the year after they won the national championship. That same group of guys later won a national championship.

buckeyepastor's picture

I know that Mitchell and Johnson aren't on campus yet, but do they have access, as players enrolling this summer and really starting to suit up in August, to the playbook right now?   Are Mitchell and Jalin Marshall and the others presently at least doing things to mentally get started?    Curious because I don't know what the rules are for that sort of thing.   

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

tjbucvik23's picture

I have on my homepage igoogle. It has many options. One is ESPN. yesterday it had a link to a video on Ohio State. It spoke of the 2013 season and spoke much on defense. I don't know how easy it can be found. Good luck.

Knarcisi's picture

Other than Mike (MLB), I'm not concerned at all.  Spence, Washington, Bennett, Hale, and Schutt have all seen significant time on the DL and were impressive.  There is a world of talent with young guys with something to prove.  For the MLB position, Grant should be pushed hard by Williams, Perkins, and even Perry and Mitchell.  Strong competition should yield a nice result for us, and will likely give us some options.  We also have a very soft schedule to start the reason for this to develop. 

RunEddieRun1983's picture

I don't know about sarcasm or whatever, but I said earlier in the off season he shouldn't be the DC.  He should be fired, Withers should be running the show.  My opinion, agree or disagree if you like, but watching Indiana put 49 up on the Buckeyes turned my stomach.  Watching Cal work the ball up and down the field with ease turned my stomach.  That's not Ohio State defensive football.

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

Was watching scUM fail to cross their 48 for an entire half enjoyable for you?  That was definately Ohio State defensive football.

RunEddieRun1983's picture

I saw that.  It was nice, but there is a stat line out there from last season that I, and no other buckeye fan should ever think is suitable.  49.  49 hoosier points put up on the buckeyes, and not the basketball hoosiers, the football hoosiers.  Listen, I get it, they got better down the stretch, but I don't care where you are, what part of the year it is, or whatever have you, if Indiana scores 49 points on your defense, that is inexcusable.
Also TTUN not moving past mid field in that game, IMO has a lot more to do with the players than the coaches.  They show the heart and determination to get it done, I don't know how much fickell had to do with that.

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

Fickell called the D in the scUM game, and you could see the adjustments the staff made at halftime so I think he had tons to do with it.
As for Indiana, I agree it was embarassing.  I hope we never see anything like it again.  To use that as an example to fire our DC is shortsighted imo though.  Like you said, they improved which is the product of good coaching.  If we're using outliers to base decisions on, then Herman should go too.  Our offense was downright pathetic at times last year.  Only scoring 7 points in 4 quarters against Wisconsin is just as bad as giving up 49 at Indiana to me.  The whole team improved as the year went on and Meyer has heaped praise on ALL his assistants.  Those 2 things are good enough for me tohave confidence in our entire staff.

CTBuckeyeFan's picture

Also, you're giving all the fault for the indiana game to Fickell then turn around and give all the credit for the scUM game to the players.  Thats a bit contradictary (if thats even a word).

ODEEZ330's picture

imo iu dropping 49 has a lot to do with the players as well. It works both ways

stark county football

Buckeye06's picture

OSU was up 3 scores with 5 minutes left in the game.  It wasn't a great showing but the game was over. 
That's like taking on a TD with 2 minutes left and saying OSU blew someone out when they win like 35-20

villagebuckeye's picture

If you are going to blame a coach for failure, you need to praise them for success....

b_pbucksfans's picture

Im not ready to skin Fickell just yet. The D improved over the season and now that Fick and Withers have all off-season to gel, I see good things coming our way. Regarding IU, OSU's defense last year was not built for spread teams. Our D was very slow last year. Boren, Klein, Sabino for that matter, are slow. With the speed at LB now, I expect our D to return to the Bullets!

RunEddieRun1983's picture

Again, just my opinion.  I would think that a Meyer coached team, and an OSU defense should never let any team hang 49 on them, or a team like Cal rack up the kind of yardage they gained.  It was an embarrassment.  Also keep in mind Purdue only scored more than 22 or whatever it was one other time that year I think, and Illinois hung it's highest point total on OSU out of all the B1G teams.
Just saying at the end of the year if the defense isn't good he's going to have another out with it being about all the young players.  It's just to dicey for me.

I don't always downvote, but I do always downvote a Michigan fan trolling the Buckeye boards.

Maestro's picture

Jesse H. Christobal, the real "fire Fickell" people absolutely kill me. He was burdened with a Co-DC last season. A coach that he had never coached with from a completely different background. Yet Withers gets no heat AT ALL.
Coach Mike Vrabel, thanks Coach Fickell.
The guy has been batted around like a piñata since some 22 months ago when the Buckeye World was turned upside down. Like an Asian friend of mine used to say, "cut him some slacks."

vacuuming sucks

Earle's picture

I was critical of Luke and the defense last year, especially after Indiana, and I think much of the heat was deserved, but never to the point that I thought he should be fired. Demoted, maybe, but no more than that. And if the defense had continued on the arc that it was on, I think one or the other might have happened. Right or wrong, the perception was that Luke was calling the shots, even if Withers waa Co-DC.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 12-0. Fickell, Withers, and the rest of the D started to figure it out, perhaps with no small help from Zach Boren and greater personal involvement from the head coach. Whatever the reasons, Luke deserves as much credit for the defense's improved performance in the last third of the season as he did the blame for its earlier struggles. How much is open for debate, but clearly he was in the mix for both.

At any rate, I'm glad Fick is on the staff and looking forward to what he and Withers can do with all the young talent on this defense.

Oh, and I think your friend should cut him a jacket to go with those slacks.

Have you tried Not Your Father's Root Beer?  It tastes just like the real thing, but it packs a punch (5.9%ABV).  It's a little sweet for me though.  Two is my limit.

Maestro's picture

Earle FTW.

vacuuming sucks

buckeye76BHop's picture

I'm willing to forget the game at IU and absolute piss poor tackling from Cal long as the defense is much more sound fundamentally this year.  If they can't make simple tackles as opposed to diving like they're on PS3 EA Sports 2013 College Football game, then I'm incline to want to see a change.  That would be fantastic to see those fundamentals cleaned up...then I'm ok with Fick as head DC.  He's earned it after being the sacrificial lamb in 2011 as well as being Heacock's right hand man.  
However...don't think for a second that UFM won't promote Withers to head DC and possibly can/tell Fick to take a HC position to make it look respectable.  You all can blast me with down votes if you feel it necessary...but if this season doesn't go well...look out for something like this to happen.  If I'm not mistaken after watching UFM's presser from day one of spring sure sounded like that's all he's worried how well the front 7 play.  So you ask Fick's job dependent on this years defensive performance...???  I'd say most definitely.  

"There's nothing that cleanses your soul like getting the hell kicked out of you."

"I love football. I think it is most wonderful game in world and I despise to lose."

Woody Hayes 1913 - 1987 

Spirit's picture

Coach Fickell has ALWAYS represented tOSU with grace and dignity! He has been there and done that, playing and coaching on a higher level than any of us. I'll always have great respect for him. He, and his family have given us their all.


racecar32's picture

the linebacker has to want to put in the time just like boren did last year. if not no matter how much the coach wants to teach him its up to player to put n extra time with the coach