Elite Linebacker Play Could be the Difference Between Good and Great for Ohio State

By Kyle Rowland on March 3, 2014 at 9:15a
Curtis Grant will
53 Comments

The beginning stages of any season represent hope. Optimism reigns supreme with every team believing they can win a conference championship or even a national title. Those feelings never leave Columbus, Ohio. In the capital city of Buckeye Nation, positive thoughts fill every day of every season.

On Tuesday, Ohio State begins spring practice. In an instant, the dawn of the 2014 season erases any lingering negativity from 2013’s consecutive losses. Along for the ride are good vibes about a position that’s plagued the Buckeyes for half a decade: linebacker.

Ryan Shazier was dominant for more than two years. But not since the days of James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman has Ohio State possessed an entire unit of skilled linebackers. Last season was a step forward toward a half century of superiority. Shazier, Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry supplied the Buckeyes with adequate play.

Still, it wasn’t the level head coach Urban Meyer craves – or expects. Now the spring brings a renewal. For Grant and Perry, it’s a time to solidify their starting positions, Trey Johnson can further strengthen his place in the rotation and true freshman Raekwon McMillan has the floor to prove his worth.

It’s Meyer’s hope that lamenting the relative weakness of the linebacking corps is a thing of the past. During his two seasons as coach, pointing out flaws became a theme. The root of the problem is a lack of depth due to misses in recruiting.

“The linebacker position is still not solidified yet. We’re not Ohio State expectation level,” Meyer said last season. “Linebacker’s one position we’re keeping our finger on hard, because we need to improve the level of play and the number of backers we have in the program.”

The Buckeyes tried to remedy that problem by welcoming four linebackers in February’s recruiting class. And they didn’t just add numbers, they signed four of the best linebackers at their positions in the country. Gone are the days of converting a fullback to linebacker. At least that’s what Meyer and linebackers coach Luke Fickell hope.

Replacing Shazier – if that’s even possible – becomes the top priority. He was one of the most productive linebackers in college football the past two seasons. Shazier’s junior year included a team-high 143 tackles and 22.5 tackles for loss. No other Buckeye had 90 total tackles. Shazier also recorded six sacks and four forced fumbles.

Johnson or junior-to-be Devan Bogard could replace Shazier, but Johnson played just six games last season and Bogard is coming off his second consecutive season-ending knee injury. Ohio State didn’t only lose a high quantity of tackles when Shazier departed for the NFL, it also lost a vast amount of leadership. Asking two green players to replicate that could be too much.

​“We’re going through an overhaul right now,” Meyer said on Signing Day. “Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it’s just not where we need to be. So there are four linebackers we recruited: Raekwon McMillan, Sam Hubbard, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker. Four guys I’m putting pressure on – and Coach Fickell and myself to get ready for next year.”

There’s no guarantee Grant and Perry will hold on to their starting jobs, though the incumbents remain the odds-on-favorites. Grant had 52 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in 2013, and Perry tallied 64 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

Incredibly, Grant’s already entering his senior season in a career filled with expectations. He came to Ohio State as a five-star recruit and the No. 1 prospect in the nation. He’ll leave having not lived up to the hype, but salvaging early career miscues remains a possibility. Grant’s been especially dreadful in pass coverage.    

The middle linebacker could feel pressure from McMillan, who might form his own March Madness. McMillan, the nation’s top linebacker recruit, is intent on making an instant impact for the Buckeyes. He already looks the part, displaying a hulking 6-foot-2, 240-pound frame that’s neatly sculpted. It harkens back memories of Andy Katzenmoyer arriving on campus with a linebacker’s body.

McMillan might not be aware of the “Big Kat,” but Ohio State’s recent history is fresh in his mind.

“The linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense,” McMillan said. “Coach Fickell, he’s coached some of the greatest linebackers in college football. I could start naming them – A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Bobby Carpenter. The list goes on and on. But in the last three of four years, they haven’t had that solid guy in the middle who can run the whole show.

​“Every day I come in with the mindset that the five-star stuff and high school really don’t matter anymore. All that can be thrown in the trash can right now, because I’m just a freshman in college right now who got here in January that nobody knew on the football team.”

Of course, that could soon change in a big way. And Meyer is a mere single person in a legion that hopes McMillan, or anyone, really, can seize the opportunity put forth. The anxiety among Buckeye faithful is palpable, especially after the defensive letdown late last season.

Cam Williams, Darron Lee and walk-ons Joe Burger and Craig Fada also are names to watch. Williams, like so many, came to Ohio State as a highly touted recruit, but he’s made nary a head turn during his first two seasons. Lee, a former safety, showed promise on special teams while he learned his new position, and Burger and Fada became favorites of Meyer for an admirable work ethic.

“They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already,” Meyer said about the incoming freshmen, with an eye on current backups. “So just so everybody knows, there’s no redshirt plans for those players at all. We thought about that during the recruiting process.”

More bodies translate into more competition, which usually benefits the position, defense and entire team. It could also solve Ohio State’s depth issues. Dynamic starters are wanted, but the Buckeyes need to establish suitable backups as well. A lack of capable No. 2 linebackers has been just as much a setback as not having top-line starters.

“We want mature players,” Meyer said.

In a land where linebackers do yearly Mick Jagger impersonations – I can’t get no satisfaction – 2014 could take shape and produce a bevy of acceptable players, conjuring images of the Buckeyes’ storied past.

53 Comments

Comments

Jeremypreemo81's picture

Linebacker U is BACK! 

Killer nuts's picture

I'm excited to see what the freshman can bring to the table for this linebacker group

+1 HS
BroJim's picture

Hawk, Carpenter, Schlegel. . . those were the days!

I season my simple food with hunger

+3 HS
kwaz50's picture

I really think Hubbard could be the X-factor of this group because he's so long and athletic in space that he can make plays all over this field.  

+2 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

You are so right, but if Urban feels he has enough in the fold I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't groom Hubbard as a tight end.

Buckeye in Texas

Earle's picture

Really hoping the young guns can step it up.  I'm not optimistic we will see "elite" play out of Grant and Perry.  Sure, they can get better, but I just haven't seen many flashes from either one of them that makes me think they'll ever be at that level.  I'm rooting for them to prove me wrong.

Italics are for emphasis.

+3 HS
acBuckeye's picture

At this point, I'd be happy with "solid" play out of them.

+1 HS
BuckeyeJ's picture

agreed. Solid play is what we need. The young guns will def get there time (i hope) to prove they belong on the field. We need those LB that stand people up!! I was disappointed last year after a pretty good haul at LB. So i hope this year we see LBU back

Alpo's picture

Hoping for improvements all around in the LB department. RDS is going to prove extremely difficult to replace but someone has to step up. Hopefully th competition will ramp up and bring the best out of the group as a whole. Depth is going to be crucial to having a successful unit.

Buckeye06's picture

I really think LBer is so much more stable than the secondary.  Although neither Grant nor Perry were exceptional last year, both have played a ton of snaps and, i think most would agree, we saw improvement throughout last year. 

I hope those 2 can be solid, and a 3rd can really come along for this year, with the strength coming back IMO in 2015 when we have the 4 super sophs, with Perry/Johnson/Williams, among others

yrro's picture

There was plenty of room for them to improve :P At least in the games I charted,  Perry was heavily involved in our complete failure to defend against the screen game early in the season. He didn't let himself get blocked out of every play like Armani Reeves did, but he was slow enough getting out to help that the play was past him before he could do anything about it on a consistent basis.

+1 HS
acBuckeye's picture

Hate to say it, but it's hard to believe that Cam Williams is a scholarship LB at Ohio State. I've never seen an OSU LB look more lost on the field in my life.

+1 HS
BuckeyeJ's picture

I agree. And he was a 4*. 

+1 HS
TUNBUCK89's picture

I know evaluating recruits is not an exact science, but boy!...for the case of Curtis Grant to go from the N°1 recruit in the nation to a very disappointing career so far is simply....surprising.

+2 HS
RuGettinIt's picture

I believe Sabino was another 5* who never really "got it" and he was here 5 years....

Chise47's picture

I believe the LB corps will be what the DL was last year. Seriously worried about, but for naught because it turned out to be a strength.

Perry doesn't get the credit he deserves because everyone was so used to RDS flashing into the play so often. I think Josh will be fine. It's Grant that really needs to look over his shoulder.

And as much as I defend Tress, it's his fault our LB's were 'without' the past few years. He missed on 2 of Ohio's best 2 years in a row.

  1. Jordan Hicks
  2.  Trey DePreist
-1 HS
acBuckeye's picture

Hicks has turned out to be a whole lot of so-so down in Austin. Not getting two players is hardly to blame for our troubles. Why haven't Cam Williams, David Perkins, or Luke Roberts panned out? Those guys are going into their third year in the program and have barely contributed, if at all. Is this Tressel's fault too? He didn't recruit any of them. C'mon man.......

Jbucks's picture

David Boom Perkins left the program didnt he?

Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it-John 1:5 SEC meet Ohio State, Ohio State meet SEC

+1 HS
Nutinpa's picture

Yup.  Coincidentally....after he face planted Brutus during the Spring Game as I recall. 

+1 HS
villagebuckeye's picture

Both Perkins and Roberts transferred before the 2013 season. Think you need to find a current roster

 

+1 HS
acBuckeye's picture

My fault on that. But it still goes back to my point (and further proves it to an extent) that nobody can blame Tressel for the sad state of our LB corps. Our LBs were always, at the very least, solid under Tressel.

BuckeyeJ's picture

That class started with Tress, then Tat gate happened and fickle took over. Would love to look up who tress had recruited the 2yrs prior to see what changed. But to me it seems that the LB/DB depth was serriously shallow

Shangheyed's picture

Just an example of depth issues... regardless of the reasons for them not on the team, not having them there hurt... new recruits will re-stock the LB fridge! 

Johnny-Shane_Utah-Falco's picture

I agree, ACBUCKEYE.

Look at all of the GREAT Linebackers Coach Tressel had here...AJ Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman, Brian Rolle. Ross Homan was pretty damn solid, too.

It has been the Fickell/Meyer guys who have underperformed, if we have to blame someone.

+1 HS
hit_the_couch's picture

Hicks had ties to UT and was never coming to tOSU. In the case of Depreist i'm guessing that the Bama boosters had deeper pockets on that one.

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

+2 HS
Nutinpa's picture

Tressel and the coaches before him missed out on Ohio kids over the years. But it never or rarely resulted in the dumpster fire at a position like we have seen at LB in the past few years. No offense...but your blame and generalization is a bit off base here. This team's woes at LB run a heckuva lot deeper than missing on Hicks and DePriest.

+1 HS
buckeyeEddie27's picture

With the group of LB's we have now it's just a matter of time before that position is the strength of the D again.

I know there's a game Saturday, and my ass will be there.

Jbucks's picture

yes Tress missed on the top Ohio LB which was extremely rare, but not soley his fault, he did land the #1 recruit & LB is Grant, Shazier the same year as well. if Grant pans out the way we thought he would, we'd be having a different conversation about how do you replace both RDS & CG. Im already in love (no homo) Raekwon Mcmillan, his build, his Ability, Him coming in early & working out getting ready for his career, but is he going to pan out? will he be able to defend the pass? will he be the leader, the loud QB of the defense, will he be able to call out/make adjustments? if he is already watching tape the answer is yes hes gonna make it. But the guy I see having the most Potential is Booker, who I think hurt himself a bit by not coming in early & working out, but only time will tell if this LB haul is the 1 that will bring back our beloved Bullets

Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it-John 1:5 SEC meet Ohio State, Ohio State meet SEC

+1 HS
yrro's picture

And at the time, no one was surprised to miss out on that recruit, as we had a huge logjam at linebacker at the time. Grant and Bell were the heirs apparent, with Shazier, Klein, and a few others supposedly fighting for the scraps that were left in terms of playing time. It's amazing how much just a few recruiting misses can snowball.

+1 HS
cinserious's picture

Agree with YRRO, its not Tressell's or Urban's fault in recruiting. Its just plain dumb luck! We has the top 2 inside LBs in the country in Sabino and Sweat; #1 LB in Dorian Bell; Klein was big time, Grant was big time; Perkins and Cam Williams were stud 4*s. Injuries, transfers, poor performance, lack of development has all contributed to this mess. With the LB haul we have coming in for '14, Fickell needs to have the position group doing a 180 THIS YEAR and I don't care if they are true freshmen, if not, its time for Fickell to go because that means poor development on his position group.

Life's daily struggle is choosing between saying F--ck-it, or soldiering on with your responsibilities.  

youngbuck32's picture

Is there any chance at all Chris Spielman would consider following Urban out of retirement and coaching these young guys up? I listen to him on the broadcasts and it seems like he still has the fire in there. Also... Stop blaming Tress for not recruiting guys. Those guys may have slipped through the cracks but I'm pretty sure Buckeye Nation would take Hawk, Carpenter, Schlegel, Little Animal, heck even Marcus Freeman any day. At the end of the day it's coaches coaching and players playing. Rome wasn't built in a day and the Silver Bullet Defense can't be expected to either. Urban has "HIS" guys on the sidelines for the most part... and now, Urban has "HIS" guys getting lined up on the field. Let's see how it works this year and be excited instead of laying blame at Tressel's feet. I loved Tressel then, and I love Urban now as our coach. Leave it at that instead of the blame game.  Go Bucks.

Can't is the real "C" word!

+1 HS
yrro's picture

 But not since the days of James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman has Ohio State possessed an entire unit of skilled linebackers. 

Rolle, Homan, and Sweat/Hines would like a word with you about that statement. They weren't high draft picks or award winners, but I'd argue that they anchored defenses that were even better than those produced by Little Animal and his group. I don't think our 2007 unit could have shut down Oregon.

+4 HS
Ahh Saturday's picture

Absolutely! I confess to being among those guilty of failing to appreciate Rolle and Homan while they were at OSU, but MAN would I have loved to have had those guys alongside Shazier last year!

+1 HS
luckynutz's picture

I agree as well...Homan is about as underrated as it gets. Loved the way he played...he didnt pile up the big time sexy numbers like other guys. But it seems like he was always where he was supposed to be when he needed to be. Loved Ross homan because he didnt miss tackles. Didnt miss assignments. And came to play every single play.

Ahh Saturday's picture

The Buckeye's luck at LB is starting to remind me of Iowa's luck with RB.  It's been a mixed bag of transfers, injuries, recruiting misses and 5* disappointments, but there's no denying that the LB unit is still in flux, and likely still a season away from being "OSU level."

+2 HS
TUNBUCK89's picture

There's no denying it that the talent is there. Now all that is needed is reps, reps, and some more reps in real game situations even if it means some growing pains which means I agree with you that our LB unit is still a season away from being OSU level.

Crimson's picture

Be quiet.  It will hear you!

+1 HS
Earle's picture

Gesundheit!

Italics are for emphasis.

mobboss1984's picture

I think you start Grant, but substitute him during passing downs. He has been slightly better, but on passing downs, "awful". Josh Perry needs work on passing downs and shedding blocks. Without Shazier, this year will be a little scary depending on Chris Ash and Luke Fickell developing our young players. The bright spot on defense as a whole for me this year is at safety with Vonn Bell. At linebacker, Sam Hubbard if they let him on the field. Mcmillan will be a run stopper for sure. Trey Johnson will also produce this year. Worried about Josh, Cam, and Curtis though. Especially Cam. Urban knows what he's doing and will develop these guys.

Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.
Bruce Lee
 

Barnsey69's picture

LB is a revered position at OSU, and last year it was not...assist UFM:

"The linebacker position is still not solidified yet. We’re not Ohio State expectation level."

This group coming appears to have the right look on paper and on Youtube, but we have all seen too many hyped up players not pan out to just assume 5 stars equals college All-American (just ask Mike DeAndrea). Wether it be injuries, or just plain old "just doesn't get it", they gotta play the game to find out. I trust Urban and his staff to get the right guys on the field out of this current bunch and fix what ails this defense. 

I am very excited to watch these guys battle it out for the honor of playing LB at The Ohio State University...may the best men win.

Go Bucks!

Thank the Maker that I was born in Ohio, cradle of coaches, US Presidents, confederate-stomping Generals, and home of The Ohio State University Football Buckeyes!

Hovenaut's picture

Shazier will not soon be forgotten by this Buckeye fan, but I'm hoping to see the unit rise up - and not an individual (again, no disrespect to what RDS did the past couple years).

Poison nuts's picture

If each LB on the field played as well as Shazier at just 75% - things would be pretty damn good! I too am hoping for a complete unit & not just one star. With that said - RDS is someone I'm truly going to miss.

"Do not pass me, just slow down - I can move right through you" Superchunk - Precision Auto.

+1 HS
buckskin's picture

I feel it was the imperfect storm that has led to the LB troubles for the last couple of years.  Their position coach gets promoted to head coach, resulting in less time spent on coaching LBs and the details of the position.  Player development has been weak in this area.  Also, we haven't had that "natural" player that just comes in and knows the position (Speilman, Hawk, Laurinitis).  We also have signed a few "high ceiling" guys who need more time to develop that haven't exactly panned out.  One thing that current guys are missing:  instincts.  Time to get back to the basics.

buckskin's picture

Staff question.  Last 2 days I have posted a comment, it has either double or triple posted.  Seen this problem anywhere else?

InvertMyVeer's picture

If you refresh the page after posting it will repost your comment, perhaps you were doing this? 

Football is complicated...

Jpfbuck's picture

the 2010 defense proved you don't need to be "elite" at anything to have a good defense, they had few sacks, few TFL but picked off passes at a high rate and were just fundamentally sound to the tune of ranking in the top 10 in both run and pass D, not many super stars on that D either, Cameron Heyward had his games, but most of the others will not be listed in the OSU pantheon of greats

Rolle, Homan, Hines, Chekwa, Torrence, Ohrian Johnson, Nate Williams, a very young John Simon playing DT, etc, ie one of the most no name defenses we ever had, but game in game out a very stout unit..and very under rated

I would take that 2010 unit any day over the unit we had the last year, man for man I would trade them up with last years unit and know we would have been light years better.

+1 HS
buckeye4life050233's picture

the 2010 defense got off the field on 3rd downs way more often than they gave up 1st downs.  If it was 3rd and 10 or more they were easily 90 percent getting off the field that year.  It was 50/50 this past year, whether it be a breakdown or a pass interference or blown coverage.

BuckeyeJ's picture

I really want the young guys on the field if they develope!!!!! Because even though we may never know y MM wasn't put out there, I was pulling for him and Trey to take over. 

The future looks bright

luckynutz's picture

What the last few years have lacked this past defenses did not is depth at the LB position. You graduate an all American? You have his replacement step in and become an all american. You lose lose 3 starting lbs with multiple years of experience? Well...here comes 3 new game ready lbs. For whatever reasons, that depth hasn't been there. Injuries, attrition and a coaching with a new philosophy has left the cupboard bare. I cant honestly remember the last time I saw a walk on in the two deep at ohio state as an lb. Yet at various points last year you had two of them in the two deep. Grant has had his issues...came in too heavy and couldn't shed weight. Almost lead to him quitting football. Stuck with it, and couldnt pick up the schemes...which was a blow to his confidence. And last year, when it looked like he was turning a corner, injuries came along and limited his abilities even further. Im pulling for him to stay healthy and have the lights come on fully. Hopefully having a young buck gunning for his spot it will push him to realize his full potential.

Basic gist of it all...there are reinforcements coming. And they are all hungry and ready to compete. If they come in and unseat the old dogs....so be it. Just ready to see the lbs play at the level we became accustomed to over the years.

Johnny-Shane_Utah-Falco's picture

Gotta have the lateral speed.

 

The need for (lateral) speed.

+1 HS
m5987usus's picture

My opinion for Curtis Grant is that he is going to have an AWESOME season

O-H!

+1 HS