Next Man Up at Linebacker Isn't So Simple

By Kyle Rowland on January 22, 2014 at 9:15a
Curtis Grant could be "the man" during his senior season.

Vulnerable. Underwhelming. Discouraging. Those are words used to describe Ohio State’s linebacking corps at various points last season. Head coach Urban Meyer chimed in frequently, saying, “they don’t look Ohio State-ish.” 

“Other positions, you can see three guys, they’re all good-looking players. The linebackers are not where we need to be,” Meyer added.

That begs the question, how will they stack up in 2014 minus their biggest playmaker? Ryan Shazier, he of 143 tackles, is off to the NFL. The void left where he occupied space is cavernous. For three seasons, Shazier could be relied on to be in the right place at the right time.

Shazier’s difference-making ability was obvious from the start. He made 15 tackles against Penn State in his first career start and never let up. Tackles, sacks and stops behind the line of scrimmage happened with regularity. When you consider Ohio State’s returning scholarship linebackers had one less tackle combined than Shazier tallied all of last season, a drop off in production is imminent.

Depth at linebacker is nonexistent. Yes, there are bodies. But inexperience is the dominant trait. Replacing 22.5 tackles for loss – the third-best total in school history – isn’t easy. Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry progressed well in 2013, though each still needs to make a leap to become a game-changer.

“I’m coming along,” Perry said, assessing his season. “I’ve still got a lot to work on, but I’ve got a lot more confidence in my play. My teammates and coaches have more confidence in me, too.”

The three-word phrase used most often when reinforcements are needed is “next man up.” But it’s not that simple. Luke Fickell must search far and wide during the offseason to not only fix a leaky defense, but also discover the remedy to offset Shazier’s absence.

Help is on the way when recruiting is dissected. The Buckeyes welcome the No. 2, 3 and 4 outside linebackers in the country – Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker. And a plethora of linebackers populate the current roster. Competition will be the theme of spring practice, as each position is open. Even Grant and Perry’s jobs aren’t safe.

One opening, similar to what Shazier faced against Penn State, can jumpstart a career. Until someone seizes the moment, anxiety will permeate around the defensive coaching staff. For the better part of three seasons, linebacker has been a black hole for Ohio State.

“The linebacker position is still my biggest concern on the team,” Meyer said, late in the season. “It’s just the depth. The depth is a major concern. We’re nowhere where we need to be as far as the expectation level of the linebacker play here.”

The top candidate to fill in for Shazier is Trey Johnson. As a true freshman, Johnson saw the field sparingly. He did, however, find time to make 11 tackles. Compared to the options behind Johnson, the sophomore seems loaded with experience. Junior Devan Bogard is a possibility, but a second torn ACL makes his presence at linebacker less likely. Beyond that, there’s no one with previous playing time.

Names like Mike Mitchell, Cam Williams and McMillan surface when linebackers are mentioned. All three could get receive playing time. The microscope will be squarely on Mitchell during spring practice after a redshirt season in Year 1. Much was made of the five-star before he ever arrived on campus, but an injury set him back.

Joe Burger, Darron Lee and Craig Fada are names coaches have used in talking about surprise players. Burger garnered attention during fall camp after he took some of Grant’s reps with the first-team defense. Whoever steps up, whether they start or rotate in, will be depended on for leadership. While Grant is the most seasoned of the lot, the unit is set up to lead by committee.

“I tell guys all the time, the hardest thing around Columbus, Ohio, to handle is praise,” Fickell said. “Criticism is not hard to handle. If you’re not a tough person, you’re in the wrong sport anyway. Criticism just makes you tougher, makes you grind harder, makes you work harder, and it makes you a better person.”

After doubling as a punching bag for three seasons for talk radio, the media and even the head coach, an assembly of Ohio State linebackers attempts to restore its luster and lofty status among the Silver Bullets.



oregonianbuckeye's picture

Great article, Kyle. What was MM's injury? 

gm3jones's picture

If I remember correctly, he hurt his ankle in practice around the first of second game of the year. I couldn't find any articles to validate that, but I do believe that is what made him redshirt.

There is nothing more remarkable as learning to think better.

spqr2008's picture

High ankle sprain is what I heard, but again, no good evidence to back me up.

Crimson's picture

He and Jalin had concussions, maybe in fall camp, as well.

CharlieBuckeye's picture

I truly believe this is the year where we have more than one LB shine.  They may be young but they were brought here for a reason.  I am hoping we have a corp like Spielman and Pepper Johnson; Hawk, Carpenter and Schegel in the 2000's etc.
I know I left a lot of names off the list but these were the first to come to mind.

"To have a great life simply follow this rule:  Do not bring undo conflict into your life..."

Charlie Baker - OSU - 1986

osubuck57's picture

We could have a "whole new" LB corps this year. I know Grant and Perry are the"popular" choices, based on experience. But I also believe Trey Johnson, Mike Mitchell, Kwon, and Booker will push hard to get on the field.


Alpo's picture

The talent sure is there. Hopefully these young guys will step up and push the whole unit to be better- they have to be.

whobdis's picture

Not to pile on the coaching staff..but if we see little production out of this incoming group it's time to look at the position coach. We've been bringing in a number of 4 and 5 star guys. A few misses is going to happen..but after awhile it's a pattern.
I didn't know Bogard tore another ACL..that sucks. I really had high hopes for him. Of the group coming in I like Booker the most.
I think the new scheme will help the LB's. Listening to Ash in his videos it appears he likes to keep things simple..but solid.

Boxley's picture

Fire Fickell, FIRE Fickell, FIRE FICKELL...........................
What too soon?
Wait for it................................

"...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

NitroBuck's picture

A few misses is going to happen..but after awhile it's a pattern.

It has been more than a few misses when it comes to LB recruits:
2009:  Dorian Bell, Storm Klein, Jordan Whiting, James Hastings, Zach Boren (FB recruit)
2010:  Scott McVey
2011:  Curtis Grant, Ryan Shazier, Ejuan Price, Conner Crowell
2012:  Joshua Perry, Camren Williams, David Perkins, Luke Roberts, Joe Burger (pref walk on)
2013:  Mike Mitchell, Trey Johnson
The Buckeyes recruited 9 guys to play LB in their 2009-2011 classes, and only saw meaningful contributions from 3 of them.  This is why there was very little experience, and practically no depth last season.  In fairness to Coach Fickell, it is difficult to coach up players who aren't there.  It is amazing to think that just a few short years ago, we all considered the Buckeyes to have an embarrassment of riches in the LB corps.  Fortunately, the additions in the 2014 class should help rebuild some of the much needed depth.

Ferio.  Tego.

bassplayer7770's picture

Yeah, there have been a lot of transfers and injuries.  Also, don't forget that Luke Roberts transferred to Harvard.

Cavluv23's picture

I Just have a honest question... Why does Grant continue to presumably get the nod to start ? I understand he has time under his belt... but half the time I forget he's on the field. Is it because that is the history of coach fickell to play upper classmen ? I really am curious to know... GO BUCKS !!  

World travel is my passion spreading the word and grace of Ohio in every corner of the world . 

Buckeye06's picture

This could have been a reply to either you or the post above.  Fickell can be dogged for his time as a DC, and for a lot of his moves, if they were his, he ABSOLUTELY should be.
What should not be questioned is his ability to coach LBers.  He has put tons of LBers into the NFL in the last decade.  He's been coaching LBers for the Bucks since 04.
Fickell was the LB coach who made Shazier what he was and gave him his shot.  He is the guy who plugged AJ Hawk into the NCG as a true freshman, and had little animal ready to go against Michigan when Carpenter went down, and made a 3 year starter at FB a usable MLB in only a couple of months. 
So i don't think his coaching of LBers should really be questioned.  This is far and away from the criticism he gets as DC

Bamabucknut's picture

The buck has to stop somewhere. Fickell has had responsibility for the defense for the last three years.Until he looses his job or has his responsibilities  substantially reduced, we will be putting 4-5 star recruits in a system that have proven exactly what they don't produce....a top 10 defense that reflects the qualities of a national champion.

Cavluv23's picture

So nothing in your response answered my question ... I didn't ask about fickells coaching skills nor did I question them ...I just wanted to know why it was presumed that Grant would be the starter. It was just a honest question....  relax its hump day lol  

World travel is my passion spreading the word and grace of Ohio in every corner of the world . 

Buckeye06's picture

I was more getting to your 2nd point about playing upper classmen, and using Hawk, Shazier and JL as examples of him using younger guys in huge times.
I think experience matters at MLB more than almost anywhere else on the D, as that position is supposed to be the "quarterback" of the D.  I think it is a position Grant was thrown into too early for him, and was unable to perform well as a Soph.  I really did see drastic improvements from him in stopping the run game, which is a MLB's primary responsibility. 
How many 2 year starters are benched for true freshman?  It doesn't happen often at all, which is why I think most presume he will start. 

Cavluv23's picture

Now that makes alot of sense thank you !! didn't look at it from that angle.

World travel is my passion spreading the word and grace of Ohio in every corner of the world . 

sharks's picture

Probably because Grant is pretty good. He's not a superstar like RDS, but he does his job well.

A man got to have a code...

2002osubuck's picture

Because he was a five star and the best MLB coming out of HS and everyone hopes he'll be that guy for us but I dont know if he can. I think Perry plays but there's gonna be new faces in the other spots. I just hope we have a solid 2 deep so if we have injuries there's not a drop off.

Concord's picture

Why does Grant continue to presumably get the nod to start ?"
Don't get that either.
Disappointing to say the least.
I'm hoping Mitchell steps up...cause we need an upgrade there big time.

Oakland Buckeye's picture

Grant is the next Storm Klein - keep giving him he job - but his grasp on the position is so unproductive that you look for better solutions. I see McMillan pushing him even as a frosh - I do not buy into Trey Johnson at all - he proved better than Cam - but if Mitchell were healthy  I believe MM would have been in the backup role to Grant, & will find the field as a starter somewhere in the LB corps. Booker & Perry in a dog fight at the other LB spot.

steveoz49's picture

I wasn't aware that Mitchell had an injury.  Somehow I missed that one.  I'm not sure what next season has in store for the LB group but I think that one thought is that seeing as Grant hasn't really lived up to the billing that he will be pushed by one (if not more) of the youngsters.  I feel pretty confident in Perry, I thought he continued to grow all season and the Orange Bowl was almost like his coming out party.  He played very well (just my opinion).  I am confident that the group coming in and last year's group is hungry to show they are the "next man up".  I don't think it will be long before the Silver Bullets are back.

bucknasty13's picture

When I read the paragraph that started "Help is on the way", my mind read it the way the rapping bum would have said it.

bucknasty13's picture

Can't seem to get the pic to work?

DannyBeane's picture

We really need some tackling just to save the day. Just goes to show you, HELP IS ON THE WAY!

jamesrbrown322's picture

I LOVE the young core of LBs consisting of Johnson, Mitchell, McMillan, Booker, and Burger. Perry shouldn't be overlooked either, but Mitchell remind me so much of Hawk. I think McMillan could, COULD have a Katzenmoyer type impact if he starts early, with more experienced LBs around him.
When all is said and done, this two year run of recruits will be the best run of LBs ever at OSU over such a span...lock it up!l

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts." - Winston Churchill

BuckeyeJ's picture

First time post, long time reader
I agree. The past 2 years are great hauls for the LB corp!! I would love to have Mitchell and Johnson as well as Kwon or Berger on the field at any given time. Not so sure that Hubbard doesnt get a RS though. I think he is more like Mitchell is and will need a year.

InvertMyVeer's picture

Glad to have u onboard BuckeyeJ

Football is complicated...

SHAKENBAKE68's picture

I think a lot of Hubbard as well. He may be going the the Offensive (TE) because of recent events.
We can afford to be flexible with the talent we have.
Go Bucks!!

There is no such thing as "friendly fire"..

Buckeye Elite's picture

I agree with you. Hubbard will probably RS and also I believe Berger will RS coming of an ACL tear. I can see him doing what JT Barrett did this year. I think the LB competition will be wild open this spring and going into fall camp I think Kwon is running first team MIKE, with Mitchell moving to Will or SAM and play the RDS role with Johnson or Perry playing the other OLB spot. I also see Booker in the two deep at OLB along with Lee.

"Clear eyes, Full heart, Can't lose!"
                                  - Friday Night Lights

Hovenaut's picture

I'm confident that we'll see the LB unit up to standard in time, with the quality and character of the guys coming in/up.

We have filled the Braxton Miller position.

chirobuck's picture

If I had to make a prediction right now I would say Perry takes over at the MLB and the other 2 go to Johnson and Mitchell, wil and sam guy that comes to mind though as a possible sleeper is Lee,  really loved his hs tape and thought he was going to be the biggest sleeper of the 2013 class, I'm going to stick to that and say he is rotating in this year 
and honestly I'm not that concerned about the LBers this year....the play has been subpar the last few years, Shazier not included, but thats ok cause its a new batch of guys coming up and they should be licking their chops knowing there is playing time for those who really want it


^ best post ever ^

fanfarris's picture

Get Pepper..


jay_mo_xl's picture

I believe the lb's will be much improved this upcoming season. The depth will be the main reason; this season after RDS, Grant, Perry , Burger, Trey and Kam who else was available? Enter Kwon, Hubbard, Booker, Berger, Lee and Mitchell off of a redshirt season instant depth chart upgrade.. Thats like 3 - 4 guys at each spot..
The main thing that sticks out to me when watching Curtis Grant is lack of foot speed .. He's built like an old school run stuffing lb in the age of the spread.. If he and coach Mick can work on his speed I think he'll take a huge step..
Hubbard reminds me of Aldon Smith minus the issues.

Buckeye_in_SEC_country's picture

Give me Mitchell, McMillan, and Johnson all day long.  I like C. Grant and thought he did an ok job last year, but McMillan is supposed to be the next coming.  From what I've read, he is an intelligent kid too so he shouldn't have too much of a problem understanding schemes.  I liked Perry last year as well, he is just way too slow on the outside.  Mitchell runs a 4.3 40.  There aren't too many RB's and TE's that are going to escape him.  Give these young pups a chance and lets see a fast, elite defense.

wyatt's picture

Really looking forward for all the linebacker prospects to step up and show us what they can do. It's been a long time.  The players, the LB coach, the defensive scheme??????  Just get it fixed.

smith5568's picture

I see Grant in the middle with Mitchell and Johnson on the outside. Grant knows this defense and played well this year when he wasn't injured. It is extremely rare for a true freshman to start ahead of a guy like Grant, so I don't see Kwon jumping him. I liked Perry, but I believe the younger players are more athletic and can cover sideline to sideline better than Perry. Also, the lack of experience from the younger LB's can be offset by the experience of Grant. He can help them be in the right position to make plays.  

Actorjonnyb's picture

C Grant has had how many years here? It took Shazier and Hawk 1 year. Go back and watch the Clemson game again, esp for Boyd's first long TD run in the first Qtr. He runs up the middle right past Perry who was in position but leaning the wrong way.
It seems these guys are always getting faked out by the throwback pass, or the counter plays. Rarely can they cover as well. 
We need a couple linebackers with better smarts and instincts. That seems to be what Wisky has and MSU has. Zach Boren didn't have nearly the athleticism of these two and he made plays and sured up our D last year.
I'm really am pulling for Grant and Perry, but I'm afraid their ceiling has been shown. 


bassplayer7770's picture

Personally, I think Perry may be the most likely to keep a starting position.  I'm not so certain about Grant, plus he seems to battle injuries regularly.  Regardless, I think the competition for a starting LB spot should be quite intense.

buckeyepastor's picture

All this article lacked was a listing of the several LBs (guys like David Perkins) who transferred out or left the team for other reasons.   This past year, numbers wise, we were really, really thin.   We also had the problem of not having consistent play from most of the LBs on the roster, but even if Perry/Grant/Shazier were all playing at a high level, there literally weren't more than a few names following them.  This year, while we still are green at LB, at least we have numbers.   I think Coach Fick sort of got some breathing room given that the pantry was a bit sparse last year.  No more.   He is loaded with talent to develop.   Perry, Grant, Williams, Johnson, Mitchell, Burger, MacMillan, Hubbard, Booker and others are now in the fold, and the first six, all having at least a year in the program, should be ready to contribute in meaningful ways.  If Willliams, Mitchell, and Johnson are still all somehow "waiting for the light to come on," I think the heat has to be on Fickell.  I understand one or two top recruits just not cutting it, but when 4-5 of them at one position are falling into that description, it's no longer a player problem but a program problem.  

"Woody would have wanted it that way" 

Patriot4098's picture

If we develop any depth at LB with some of the younger guys, I wouldn't be surprised to see Hubbard get some reps at TE, considering the situation with Baugh.

"Evil shenanigans!"     - Mac

Maestro's picture

Seeing Cam Williams on the field makes me want to fast forward the game until the opponent scores.  Just to get the pain over with ASAP.  I hope he can shock the hell out of me and become a productive player, but I have some doubts.

vacuuming sucks