Before we get into another discussion of why Ohio State might be the true "Linebacker U" in the Big Ten, let's talk about the greatest fullback in Ohio State football history. There was a time, not that long ago, when fullbacks were a key part of an offensive scheme, rather than sure-footed blockers who occasionally touch the rock. In the late 1960s, Ohio State featured one of the best big backs in the country, James Lloyd Otis.
Jim Otis played in Coach Woody Hayes' run-heavy offense from 1967-1969, a period which sparked what should have been three-consecutive national titles for the scarlet and gray. Predating the "super sophomores" by a year, the Celina native was the Buckeyes' leading rusher in each of his three seasons in Columbus, reaching 530, 985 and 1,027 yards, respectively. Including his receiving yards, Otis accumulated 2,708 yards from scrimmage, good enough for 4.5 yards per time his hands touched the ball.
Otis' junior season was a high point for the Buckeyes, as he helped lead the team to the school's fifth national championship, and its fourth under Coach Hayes. The '68 squad was perhaps the greatest all-around team in school history, fielding 11 All-Americans and six first-round NFL draft picks. With quarterback Rex Kern and Otis leading a powerful OSU offense and the incomparable Jack Tatum on defense, the capped an undefeated season with an overwhelming dismantling of That Team Up North.
The awe-inspiring 50–14 victory over arch-rival Michigan was the game in which Coach Hayes famously went for a two-point conversion, prompting the greatest line in coaching history: "Because I couldn't go for three." That victory took the Buckeyes to Pasadena, where a come-from-behind 27–16 victory over Southern California in the 1969 Rose Bowl secured the national title.
As an interesting piece of trivia, the '68 squad was the first team to receive the now-iconic Buckeye leaf helmet stickers symbolizing outstanding performance. Ohio State was the first team in the country to adopt the practice, which is now fairly wide-spread. Often imitated, in other words, but never duplicated. Unfortunately, the Skunk-weasels would emerge victorious the next season, ruining the up-to-then-undefeated Bucks' hopes of another national title, and sparking The Ten Year War.
A consensus First Team All-American and First Team All-Big Ten honoree in 1969, Otis was 7th in the Heisman Trophy voting his senior season, and still ranks among the top ten in school history with 2,542 rushing yards and places 14th with 210 career points. In his three seasons in The 'Shoe, he helped Ohio State achieve a 24-4 overall record, two Big Ten titles and the win in the '69 Rose Bowl.
Otis was inducted into the Ohio State Varsity O Hall of Fame in 1996. In the Ohio State record book, he remains second only to Archie Griffin among Ohio State running backs in career rushing yards per game. In 2000, Otis was selected to the Ohio State Football All-Century Team.
Selected by the New Orleans Saints in the ninth round of the 1970 NFL Draft, Otis was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs the next season, and eventually spent six of his nine seasons in the league with the St. Louis Cardinals. Otis' most successful year in the NFL was 1975, when he rushed for an NFC-leading 1,076 yards and was selected to the Pro Bowl. Otis beat Minnesota's Chuck Foreman by 6 yards, thus preventing Foreman, who led the NFC in touchdowns and receptions that year, from achieving a rare Triple Crown.
In nine seasons, Otis carried the ball 1,160 times for 4,350 yards. He caught the ball 90 times for another 549 yards, and in total scored 22 touchdowns. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry, and 6.1 yards per catch.
The Otis family had several ties to Ohio State football: Jim's father, Dr. James John Otis, was Coach Hayes' college roommate at Dennison in the '30s; Jim's son James John Otis II, was a preferred walk-on in 2001 and lettered in 2003 for special teams play. Jim's other son, Jeff, has been under contract with five NFL teams and is currently a free agent.
In addition to Otis' exploits, #35 was worn in recent decades by a trio of outstanding Buckeye linebackers. Glen Cobb wore the jersey from 1979-1982, and though he was overshadowed by teammate Marcus Marek (see here), the two-time captain is still listed among Ohio State's all-time leading tacklers with 336 career takedowns.
Jerry Rudzinski wore the number from 1995-1998, and was a four-time academic All-Big Ten selection who served as a captain during his senior season.
And who could forget his successor Matt Wilhelm, who played for the Buckeyes from 1999-2002? Moved to middle linebacker before his sophomore season, Wilhelm started every game from then on. The following year he earned the Randy Gradishar Award as the team's top linebacker and made all of the defensive calls.
As a senior in 2002, Wilhelm was recognized as a consensus first-team All-American, and helped his team win a BCS National Championship with a team-leading 11 tackles in the 31–24 Fiesta Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes. Wilhelm ended the year with a career high 121 tackles and ended his career with the 6th most career tackles for loss for Ohio State all-time.
Selected by the San Diego Chargers in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, he spent the first four years of his career mostly on special teams and as a backup. In 2007, he became a full-time starter after Donnie Edwards signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, and played there until he was released by the Chargers on July 24, 2009. He spent the summer on the practice squad with the Eagles before spending a season each with the 49ers and the Packers. In eight seasons, he had a hand in 243 tackles and recorded a pair of sacks. He defended 10 passes and picked off 6 interceptions.
So that'll do it for today's installment of the countdown. If you've missed it so far, here is the archive of the series for your reading/viewing enjoyment:
- Seven weeks to go: Days 50, 49, 48, 47, 46, 45, 44 and 43.
- Six weeks to go: Days 42, 41, 40, 39, 38, 37 and 36.