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.