Ohio State's Linebacker Corps is Thin, but Talented

By Kyle Rowland on August 8, 2013 at 9:30a
The Buckeyes are still waiting for Curtis Grant's breakout season.

When a team is gearing up for a potential national championship season, negatives are a small portion of the conversation. All summer, the talk surrounding Ohio State has been about Braxton Miller, a high-powered offense, young but talented defensive line and deep, experienced secondary.

With fall camp underway, coaches will focus on the unknown. There’s still an ongoing battle at right tackle, but the most anxiety comes across the way at linebacker. It was a black hole last season until fullback Zach Boren came to the rescue. The Buckeyes are now in a similar position. Aside from All-American candidate Ryan Shazier, there is little experience or separation.

There are six linebackers on scholarship and eight of the 11 listed on the official roster are freshmen or sophomores. Shazier is the only one that’s started one-third of a season – four games.

The replacements aren’t just stepping into the limelight, they’re tasked with providing leadership in the absence of Boren and Etienne Sabino, two driving forces – and captains – on the field and in the locker room for the unbeaten 2012 Buckeyes. Boren and Sabino played 14 games combined last season, finishing with 95 tackles, including seven for loss and three sacks.

“I underestimated the quality of the leaders,” said head coach Urban Meyer. “To be honest with you, I didn’t anticipate it. When you take over a 6-7 team you figure there’s a problem. I learned more from those leaders than any other group. It was magical.

“Sabino is an incredible leader. Zach Boren, what he did, it’d be a great (book) to write. Man, I love talking about that.”

It’s a far cry from the current cast of linebackers. Ryan Shazier solidified his place as a true freshman. He came in as a wrecking ball and improved his skill set in 2012, earning honorable mention All-American honors and placing in the top 5 of the Big Ten in five statistical categories. He led Ohio State with 115 total tackles and finished second in the conference with 17 tackles for loss.

“He still has work to do,” Meyer said. “By the end of the season, I thought he was playing at a very high level. You start talking about the list of the great ones, I don’t know if I can go there yet. I’m not sure. The way he finished that season last year, he’s one of the best linebackers I’ve had.”

Josh Perry is the odds-on-favorite to be Shazier’s running mate at strong side linebacker. He played in 10 games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, and finished with a season-high three tackles against Nebraska. That total is expected to be surpassed 14 times in 2013.

After playing a traditional smash mouth brand of defense for decades, one that’s heavy on hard-hitting linebackers, the Buckeyes will field five defensive backs almost exclusively. Playing with just two linebackers will help ease the strain on depth issues. 

“They don’t look Ohio State-ish,” Meyer said of the linebackers, minus Shazier. “Other positions, you can see three guys, they’re all good-looking players. The … linebackers are not where we need to be. We’re just going to have to hang in there this fall and not get guys hurt.”

Meyer went on to say the problem is solved with another recruiting class. Not a ringing endorsement. But some of the dialogue is coachspeak. Since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, he’s welcomed seven linebackers to Columbus. Two have already transferred elsewhere. Names like Mike Mitchell, Trey Johnson and Camren Williams resonate. As does Curtis Grant.

It’s now Year 3 for Grant, who still hasn’t reached his immense potential. He became a Buckeye as the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit. The former five-star prospect has struggled with the speed of the game the past two years. After three starts to begin the 2012 season, Grant’s role lessened as the year progressed. In eight games, Grant had just eight tackles. That’s the same amount he had in this past April’s spring game. Even with eligibility remaining past this season, he’s aware it’s likely his final opportunity.

“The will and the want-to has never been a question. It's just the ability to continue to mature,” said linebackers coach Luke Fickell. “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."

Grant isn’t the only five-star linebacker on the team. Mitchell also carries that tag. The Texan possesses the stereotypical linebacker body. Four days into fall camp, Mitchell has shown why it’s so difficult for young linebackers to play immediately. Inconsistency has been the theme. On display has been a high football IQ and knack for being in the right position. But there’s also been inexperience and poor technique.

The entire front seven was a concern when spring practice began. However, the defensive line quickly put an end to the worries. They still exist with the linebacker corps, though. A strong D-line could be the ticket to success for the inexperienced linebackers.

But it’s not like Ohio State is in unprecedented territory. One year ago, it took six games and the move of an offensive player to linebacker to solidify the unit and, in turn, the defense. Meyer is hoping the pace is much quicker this season.

“Right now, this is all candy,” he said. “Camp is terrible. But we’re not in camp yet. We’re just in practice. Just see what happens next week on Ackerman Field.”

Could it be Grant rounding into form or one of the freshmen ‘backers taking charge? Meyer doesn’t care what the number or back of the jersey says. At the top of his wish list will be developing depth at linebacker.


Comments Show All Comments

Oyster's picture

Any chance that Jacoby played some LB in high school like his brother did?  Wouldn't that be sweet if it were only true.

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

Kvs66's picture

That is absurd. We got through last year with a very slow middle LB with great desire and football smarts behind a veteran DL. The LB's have to be more talented this year and Urban has brought it in. Can the "Bollman" of LB's recognize and develop that talent? The LB's can not continue to be the weak link year after year. We have the talent.


Buckeye06's picture

Please read my post 5 below yours about the "Bollman" of LB's.  Then go look at CBS' college football team of the 2000s and you will see 2 of those LBers represented....as 2 of the best 3 linebackers of the entire decade

yrro's picture

"weak link year after year" ... we are talking about the same coach, right? The guy who coached Hawk, Carpenter, Laurinaitis, Freeman, Homan, and Rolle? 

RedStorm45's picture

First off, Oyster I'm almost sure was being tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing.  Secondly, Fickell is the defense's Bollman??

Oyster's picture

There is no such thing as a "Sarcasm Font".  You either get it, or you don't.
(you got it, somebody else didn't)

"Scrolling hurts my finger"

(and FitzBuck was clearly the winner)

faux_maestro's picture

Sarcasm Font

Your mom told me she wants a Dicken Cidar.

Buckeye06's picture

Good article, and IMO at the least OSU has 3 guys who can take quality snaps at LB.  Obviously not the number you want, but if the team is only playing 2 LBers obviously you need a 2 deep so you need 4 guys, not 6 like people often think

FROMTHE18's picture

Need Grant to play up to his potential and those young guys to mature throughout the season, not just for this year but for the future. 

InHartWeTrust's picture

I really hope two guys outside of Shazier and Perry show some positive development.  I'd LOVE to see Grant finally earn his keep, and I think Mitchell can be coached into something very "good" this year.
LB is the position that has the most "attention" from me this season, solely due to the question marks I have on them.

Edincostarica's picture

Dido on this.  I think Mitchell is going to be eventually an exceptional LB for us. The sooner the better.


oregonianbuckeye's picture

I am optimistic about Perry. I thought he looked pretty impressive at times late last year. I don't think he'll be great, but think he could be solid this year, and special in another year or two.

gumtape's picture

We expect so much from linebackers theses days, they need to be able to shed a fullback in run support and cover a 6'4" tight end that can run a 4.5 40. We want them to be able to blitz at the right time (Zach Boren forever!). And if something goes wrong, they are the first to get the blame. Most quality college linebackers can do 2 out of three well.
With that said, we have been spoiled at times having Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and before that Marcus Freeman and James Laurinitis (oh man, what a beast), all NFL quality players (freeman not so much, but as a pure weakside linebacker he was outstanding).
Shazier is definitely that, Perry could be. Anything that the freshman can add would be nice, but to come in and contribute right away other than in situational positions is asking a lot.

High and tight boo boo

InHartWeTrust's picture

Do we have high expectations?  Absolutely.  At the same time, when I see Alabama's backers playing at a very high level across the board, I expect tOSU's to be doing the same.
Top tier program, top tier expectations.  I know we have the talent, and are bringing more in, my question mark is more on who is developing said talent.

Buckeye06's picture

And I'd just like to point out, before anyone brings up problems with Fickell developing LBers, these names:
JL (won't even try to spell his last name without looking it up)
Fickell was LBer coach from 2005 until he got thrust into the HC duties.  He's back coaching LBers and if you aren't happy with those names then I don't know what to tell you

Crimson's picture

I was thinking about coaching transitions the other day.  So, was it Fickell until 2010, Vrabel in 2011, back to Fickell in 2012 as the linebackers coach?  That's still a lack of consistency for the players in the system to develop under for the past 2-3 years.

Buckeye06's picture

I think that is right, although Fickell may have been LB coach in name in 2011 still, since he got the HC job in the middle of 2011. 
I mean Fickell should be able to develop these guys since I think he's been extremely successful doing so in the past

otrain2416's picture

I feel I'm speaking for a lot of people when I say I wanna see Grant step up and play to his potential like he did in the spring. Its a bummer he hasn't stepped up so far in camp

We were born to love Ohio State and hate that team up north.

Hovenaut's picture

Depth is key, but I'm looking at quality over quantity for the moment. There are some real bangers in this unit....and they won't be young and inexperienced for long.

I hate the weak schedule to start the year, but it should afford this group to settle in.

unholy bucknut's picture

I agree I honestly really do believe this group of backers are going to take leaps and bounds in our weak out of conference schedule. We are going to be just fine. We recruit top notch talent and we have top notch coaching staff. Game experience is key and the slow start to our schedule is just what the Dr ordered for our LB corp.

bdegroff's picture

The most important thing at any position is reps. Even though Mitchell was a stud coming out of Texas, it will take him awhile to adjust to the difference in game speed. It would be nice to see an upperclassmen take the spot along side Shazier. However, if they haven't adjusted either than its open season at the LB position.
It took me awhile to understand what the coaches were talking about when they mentioned the game finally "slowed down" for the player. As is evident with Perry and Grant it takes some kids longer than others.
LB play may be a bit ugly at first, however, the more reps any LB earns the better he'll become. It will help that our d-line is ahead of schedule.

nfischer's picture

One problem is that Grant in live game situations will most likely be out 3 out of every 4 defensive plays while they are playing 5 defensive backs.  With Perry being the potential 2nd LB, it looks like Grant isn't going to be getting nearly the reps necessary over the course of the season.  I'm still holding out hope that it clicks this year and the game truly does slow down for him.

BoBo16's picture

My thought process on the linebacker corp is that we have Ryan Shazier to show the young guys how to play. If you remember how Shazier was playing through injuries the majority of the second half of his freshman season. Our young guys need to learn how to just go out there and make plays just like they have been their entire lives. The game will eventually slow down for them and its just getting back to balling out! UFM will give them their opportunities; it's just who takes it and runs with it or who isn't up for the challenge! 

Eat, Sleep, and Breathe Buckeyes

oh_dad55's picture

Shazier was a freshman who blossomed and because a star as the season progressed.  I expect that we'll see Mitchell pick it up very fast too.  Remember how Urban bad mouthed the offensive line last year?  He's calling the linebackers out as motivation.  They'll be a strength before the season is over.


Citrus's picture

Ha I lke that thought. Really the LBers are the strength! That would be awesome if true. 

urbanwarfare's picture

where is Mike D'Andrea when we need him

MassiveAttack's picture

How soon you forget.
Probably in Physical Therapy or in surgery.  He had so many injuries!  First the shoulder, then the knee, and the knee again, and again.  Making way for Hawk, Freeman and Laurinaitis to show their stuff.

The Ohio State University - "Haters love us!"

Crimson's picture

You're right.  He forgot the sarcasm font.  I thought it was pretty obvious.

Jdadams01's picture

My main concern is that Shazier didn't really take off until Boren stabilized the MLB spot next to him. The first half of the season, he admitted playing differently because he was worried about the spot next to him. Just hoping we don't see a repeat of that this season.

hit_the_couch's picture

We have another FB that can play LB if needed?

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

BuckeyeInOrlando's picture

I'm sure someone will step up and be very Ohio Stateish...
remember when an unknown freshman was thrown into the game against TTUN after Bobby Carpenter broke his leg...
stepped up and became one of the greatest ever at Ohio State...

cinserious's picture

Awesome! BTW, What's the 'Abusement Park's frame like compared to 'Lil Animal's' as a freshman?

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

Buckeye06's picture

I guess my worry is that our starting "star" will likely be a young guy as well no matter who ends up winning the spot (no juniors or seniors competing for that spot if i recall).  There will be mistakes early, OSU fans will freak out, then the guys will gain experience and those problems will begin to go away by 5-6 games into the year, just like last year. 
It is the offenses job mainly to carry this team through this September until the D can gel, just like how it will likely be the opposite story next year, when the O-line is replacing 4 guys and the D-line is set in stone

Crimson's picture

Corey Brown is competing for star.  If past performance is what matters, I'd take a frosh/soph any day of the week, and I would cut the kid a bunch of slack remembering what it looked like at the beginning of last year.  *cringe*

whobdis's picture

There were reports yesterday that walk-on Joe Burger was taking MLB snaps with the first team. Grant was not injured...and even if he was one would think Williams may be given a shot. For some reason we are having issues filling this position. I know it's early...

2002osubuck's picture

I saw this also and it shocked me but then I thought what happened last year when burger was one of the early freshman to lose his black stripe. Fickell made a comment to the extent that once your on campus stars go out the window and your play speaks for your ability. 
Im surprised more people aren't talking about this unless it's not well known. A walk-on   2 nd yr MLB playing with the first string D at tOSU is pretty big considering who else is there.

JimmyJack's picture

Aren't we only talking about 2 positions and one is filled with an All-American??? Moot. We are always going to be in nickel or use a quicker Star instead of a Sam, Tyvus Powell. No concerns here.

Breakawayspeed's picture

Bingo!  Straining at a gnat IMHO. 

JimmyJack's picture

Feels like they're just trying to temper our expectations! It can't be done. I'm dying until August 31!

sfgoody's picture

I wish I shared your optimism. I love shazier and his game but ask yourself this question: What do you think about our LB situation if God forbid shaz had to miss any time? Thats......scary.


JimmyJack's picture

Good point. I have been thinking of how many half games he'll have to sit out because of the new rules too. When a guy is hitting people that hard and fast how can he be accurate with where he hits them and it's all for the slow eyes of the B1G ref to choose if it were illegal or not!! That's scary.

Buckeye06's picture

Do the 'Stars' sit in on both LBer and Secondary meetings? 

gobucks96's picture

Not worried yet. Give Mike and Trey sometime and still have faith in Josh Perry and Camren Williams. Safties can be moved down if neccessary. Now I need to see how many spread teams we face early on..

hardkorethree's picture

I am not sure how this is all on Luke Fickell to be honest considering how few scholarship linebackers we have and how young they are.  I'm beginning to think that Curtis Grant may not possess the "it" factor like we all thought he did.  I'd love to see him be a big player, but just not sure it will happen.  Josh Perry appears to be developing and could be a solid player, we shall find out rather soon.
Finally, we can't expect Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson to be fighting for a starting spot after 3 days of practice at linebacker.  I have to believe that at least one of those two will further develop and become a solid role player later on this season, but let's not get discouraged yet.
August 31st can not come soon enough though.  Hopefully we can beat up on Buffalo early so we can get a better look at our depth.

Gametime's picture

I LOVE Luke Fickell as a player, position coach, and recruiter. I'm not really that enchanted with him as a Defensive Coordinator though. I don't care for the whole "bend-but-don't-break" philosophy on defense - that's a "playing-not-to-lose" strategy and I prefer aggressive "play-to-win" strategies.  You can really tell the difference in play calling when Coach Withers is calling plays. 
That said, Luke Fickell is an OUTSTANDING position coach. He's one of the sole reasons we can stake a claim of being "Linebacker U" this past decade.

Between goals and achievement is discipline and consistency. That fire you have inside to do whatever you love is placed there by God. Now go claim it. ~ Denzel Washington

Buckeye06's picture

Can you really tell the difference when Withers is calling plays?  Because I never know who is calling the defensive plays, and Meyer said that Fickell would be calling plays on D.
I'm not giving you crap, but I don't think anyone knows when a play is called by Fickell and/or Withers.  To my knowledge, Fickell was the primary D-coordinator and he called the plays all year

phxbuck's picture

I am also curious on how you know who is calling D plays.  If it is something that you can delineate during the game I would be interested in knowing how this is done for the upcoming season. 

RedStorm45's picture

"one of the sole reasons."  Oxymoron.

45has2's picture

Maybe Jim "I saved JT's butt more than once"  Heacock will have some "quality control" input. What good is it having Silver Bullets if you don't fire them at the opponent?

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

cinserious's picture

 Since Meyer arrived at Ohio State, he’s welcomed seven linebackers to Columbus. *

* Eight if you count Ryan Shazier:)
If RDS can come in as a true freshman and be in the right place at the right time, hit hard, Get to the ballcarrier in a hurry, then Mike Mitchell can do the same. Bigger body than Shazier but still great speed and football IQ. By the second half of the year, we should be fine at LB especially with the weaker schedule ahead.

One day I will valiantly become a political prisoner of 11W jail.

Dayton Buckeye's picture

I always hated our defensive philosophy of bend but don't break, but Heacock won a lot of games with that defense. 

45has2's picture

I recall Jim Heacock as a coach that never met a blitz he didn't like. He would dial them up from all over the field.

"I don't like nice people. I like tough, honest people." -W.W. Hayes

pjtobin's picture

Mike "The Abusement Park" Mitchell will be starting by the 5th game this year. I have a gut feeling about this. Ole 9 route can say " lock" when referring to my comment. Mike is a beast. He is going to be one of the best ever. 
Ok, I don't know anything for sure. But wouldn't it be cool if this did happen!

Bury me in my away jersey, with my buckeye blanket. A diehard who died young. Rip dad. 

unholy bucknut's picture

The future is bright at LB for the motsag. Trust in this.

2002osubuck's picture

I found this very interesting:
"As expected, getting the first-team reps on the outside were Ryan Shazier and Josh Perry. But between those two at middle linebacker was sophomore walk-on Joe Burger.
Junior Curtis Grant, who most suspect will occupy that spot come game day, spent much of the day on the sidelines."
This is pretty huge considering burger got some praise last year from fickell and was one of the early freshman to lose his black stripe. Fickell said something along the lines that once a kids gets on campus stars don't matter and whoever's better will play regardless of status.
Here the link pretty good info:
Also, found it real interesting the 2nd string d-line was Steve miller, schutt, Chris carter and freshman micheal hill at DE. Hill was a beast until he injured his hand halfway thru his senior yr and didn't get much hype because of it. With all the talent we have at DE, that says a lot about Hill's potential being all of 305lbs.
Edit: also saw that Conley was taking reps with the 1s along side doran grant. What happened over summer? Reeves and Apple seemed to be top choices for the 2nd team CBs. Conley must have really worked hard this summer. Just getting on campus in june, to get time playing 1st team CB for tOSU in fall camp is amazing, considering those 2 ahead of him.

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

I'm pullin big time for Grant to come through.  We need at least a couple of the young guys to develop really fast.  We've got some good talent.  Hopefully we see it develop very fast.
Go Bucks!!

vitaminB's picture

It sounds to me like Urbz is using playing time early in practice to see if he can fire up certain guys, Grant, Apple, etc. to see if they accept the challenge heading into the real camp.

Mirror Lake Jump's picture

Really pulling for Curtis Grant to be a playmaker this year.