Amid a Youth Movement at Linebacker, Ohio State Finds Stability From a Veteran

By Kyle Rowland on March 31, 2014 at 3:00p

With all eyes focused on Raekwon McMillian, it’s another linebacker who’s attracted the attention of head coach Urban Meyer. And for good reason.

Joshua Perry might be quiet and unassuming off the field. But on it, he’s nonstop action. The four to six seconds, point A to point B speech runs on repeat inside his head. Perry finished with 64 tackles last season, fourth most on the team and the leading returning tackler, but this spring has aided in his surge to the big time.

The junior was already asked by Meyer to address the team. The linebacking corps is an inexperienced bunch loaded with underclassmen and juniors and seniors who haven’t been feature players. Perry’s making a push to be the group’s leader while solidifying his status as a starter. 

“He’s without question one of our top five most improved players,” Meyer said. “Demeanor’s always been there, work ethic’s been there and the toughness element is something that’s really improved. He’s a wonderful guy to coach, a much improved player.”

You’ll hear no argument from Perry. He knows he’s a better player in March than he was when he walked off the field at the Orange Bowl. His offseason included watching last season’s game tapes. What he saw was a timid player whose inexperience was glaring.

In the nearly three months since a loss to Clemson, Perry has moved to the weak side. But he plays with more speed, gusto and confidence. There’s no longer a guessing game on the field. He’s fully immersed in the defensive overhaul executed by Meyer, Luke Fickell and Chris Ash, and instinctive in the offense-defense chess match.

“It’s not about individual stats necessarily. It’s about what I can do for the team. We want to win championships here.” – Joshua Perry

“It’s a little bit new,” the 6-foot-4, 250-pound Perry said. “We’re downhill. We’re reacting in the pass game and trying to get hands on guys. We’re really aggressive. I love it.

“I’ve got a lot of goals I'm trying to achieve. The more I’m out here practicing hard getting guys going the better. I had that comfort level towards the end of the year to be able to play a little bit faster and go out there and know my assignment, and just go. So right now, I’m trying to get that comfort level to where I can just see the play and react and be downhill. If I need to cover, I'm going to go cover. But I want to be able to do everything fast with reckless abandon.”

It’s almost precisely the same thoughts as Meyer. He wants speed and energy. On defense, Perry will be relied for production and as a spark. The comfort level Perry spoke of coincided with Ohio State’s defensive meltdown.

The final three games yielded a 1-2 record and burnt out light bulbs where the opponents’ points and yardage were meant to appear. But don’t blame Perry. He had 22 tackles and a sack, including a career-high 10 stops in the Orange Bowl. If he wants to be a legitimate replacement for Shazier, Perry’s numbers must continue rising – and then stay consistent.

“The sky’s the limit for me,” Perry said. “I got a little momentum heading into the end of the year, and I think that’s carried over a little bit. I have to get better at a lot of things – playing with great vision, using my hands a lot, just getting an aggressive mentality will help out. Being vocal and being one of those guys who can keep the defense together is always helpful, because the more guys you have like that on your defense the better.”

No departure on defense looms larger than Shazier’s, which makes Perry’s end-of-season stats and subsequent spring emergence so critical. Depth at linebacker is a mystery due to the green nature of the players. But recent history is known, and it isn’t good.

Lack of development hit the Buckeyes hard, lessening production. It never reached Shazier, though. The injuries stayed away, as did missed tackles – for the most part. The position change brings on added responsibilities for Perry. Don’t expect him to shrink in the moment, though.

“It’s not about individual stats necessarily. It’s about what I can do for the team,” Perry said. “We want to win championships here. We have to get guys playing, and everybody wants to play well. The better I can play, the more it’ll help the team.”

It’s not quite “as Perry goes, so go the Buckeyes.” But the replacement for Shazier will impact the defense for better or worse.

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