Bookended by one of the top defensive lines in the country and an improved pass defense, Ohio State’s linebackers have landed in an enviable position. Stress and pressure have been removed at the same time depth was added.
For the first time during the Urban Meyer era, there are many positives not named Ryan Shazier. There isn’t a 143-tackle machine on the roster. But what Joshua Perry, Darron Lee, Curtis Grant, Chris Worley and Raekwon McMillan proved this spring is there’s strength in numbers.
No one on defense creates a buzz like McMillan – not any of the four starting defensive linemen, not Vonn Bell and not Doran Grant. McMillan is the classic hyped freshman that waltzes onto campus and is instantly a fan favorite. It’s not without merit, though.
During spring practice, McMillan created chatter with his play. Meyer stoked it by giving praise to his newest linebacker. Even Grant – McMillan’s chief competition – let loose a series of compliments. Three years removed from his own floundering freshman campaign, Grant emphasized McMillan isn’t your usual first-year player.
“He comes in with a lot of things a lot of freshmen don’t come in with,” Grant said.
In his introduction to the public, McMillan recorded five tackles in the spring game, including a goal-line stop of fellow freshman Curtis Samuel.
“He’s officially in the rotation,” Meyer said of McMillan. “He’s going to play. I’d put him the same category as the other guys, Worley and Darron Lee. Those guys all earned playing time. [McMillan] and Curtis [Grant] are going to battle. Curtis had his best spring, so he’s earned that right. He’s not a freshman anymore. He has to go play.”
Therein lies the difference between 2012 and ’13 compared to ’14. Accolades for multiple linebackers just weren’t realistic in the past. This year began in far different fashion, with Meyer identifying Lee from the get-go as a worthy challenger on the first-team defense. And it came after Lee, a high school quarterback, was redshirted his freshman season.
“Darron Lee and Chris Worley are two talented guys that are developed guys,” Meyer said. “We almost sent Darron back to New Albany on a one-way bus ticket. He just didn’t show up with the right demeanor. Then about halfway throughout the season, you saw this really natural athlete and great kid start to develop. And here he is, and he’ll most likely start for Ohio State.”
The competition with Worley will continue in the fall. But the 15-practice battle served as a starting point for a unit on the upswing. Through all the positive developments, there’s still only one spot that’s spoken for. Meyer confirmed that Perry will be the weak side linebacker. The remaining two spots will be decided in fall camp.
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who doubles as linebackers coach and fan punching bag, saw an uptick in activity among the linebackers. Experience often plays a significant role during the first month of season before underclassmen become acclimated with all the rigors of the college game. Fickell doesn’t expect a drastically different setup in August and September.
“We’re going to rely on those older guys. They’ve been through a lot of ups and downs. They’ve been through a 24-game win streak and a two-game losing streak. They’ve got to feed off those experiences they’ve had,” Fickell said.
“It’s a confidence issue, whether you’re a younger guy or an older guy. We’ve got to make sure that all of these guys play together. I think that’s the one thing that started to happen at the end when things started to get tough and we weren’t playing well.”
It’s not just a superior level of play Meyer and Fickell have spied on the field. There’s a new energy, a resurgence of drive and vigor. Meyer said speed and triggering were at a faster pace. It all points to an even better run defense.
Ohio State was already a top-10 unit last season when it came to stopping the run. The Buckeyes allowed 109 yards rushing per game. Enhancing the entire defense with an already imaginative offense could wipe away the end of season blues Ohio State experienced in 2013.
And, believe it or not, the linebackers could prove vital.