Linebacker Corps Seeks to Fill Ryan Shazier's Shoes

By Nicholas Jervey on May 31, 2014 at 6:00a

The year was 2006, and Ohio State's linebacker corps had suffered a major shock.

Led by the fearsome trio of A.J. Hawk, Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel, the 2005 Buckeyes had one of the best defenses in the country. But with all three graduating, everyone thought the linebackers would be Ohio State's weakest unit. Sure, Marcus Freeman was good, but OSU would have to start an unproven sophomore with a weird Greek surname. How could some scrub named James Laurinaitis replace Hawk? It would never work.

The point is this: Sometimes, defenses lose a fantastic player only to discover somebody was waiting in the wings who could fill that role perfectly. In 2014, Ryan Shazier is the hotshot first round draft pick; now, can any of Shazier's backups measure up to his productivity?

Ryan Shazier had a statistically dominant season: 134 tackles, 94 of them unassisted, and 22.5 tackles for loss. If not for media darling Chris Borland, Shazier would have won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and Butkus award to go along with his first-team All-America selection.

Above all else, Shazier's play was based on athleticism and quick thinking. When he saw where you were going and how he was going to get there, boom.

Not all tackles are alike; an aggressive linebacker who cuts off the hole and stops the running back is far more valuable than a passive linebacker who tackles the running back eight yards downfield. It's a good thing, then, that Shazier was an aggressive, pressuring linebacker: in addition to his tackles for loss, he also caused six sacks, six QB hurries, and four forced fumbles last year.

Aside from his very fun hits, though, Shazier's game had some flaws. Early in his career, he'd read his keys wrong and fly off in the wrong direction; he improved, but he still contributed to unsound defensive play as a junior. When he read plays wrong and took himself out of position, he had to rely on athleticism to make up for the mistakes.

Though Shazier's run defense was stellar, he sometimes failed to break free of blockers. On Clemson's first drive he is shoved away from the play, and right after that he can't disengage the pulling guard to keep Tajh Boyd from cruising to a touchdown.

A few other pesky flaws show up: Shazier can't contain a wide receiver from curling around him and he tends to go for kill shots at the expense of form tackling. 3:41 is an unusual case of him not committing to the pocket and making the tackle downfield when he could have stopped the run with a less passive response.


Now that we have a vague idea of Shazier's limitations, we can set criteria for his successors. Those criteria are:

  • Matching Shazier's bursts of speed
  • Disengaging on blocks and forcing contact closer to the line of scrimmage 
  • Consistent form tackling
  • Pressuring the quarterback

To this end, I see four Buckeyes who could match Shazier's productivity: Curtis Grant, Josh Perry, Camren Williams, and Raekwon McMillan.

Grant and Perry are OSU's two starting linebackers that return from last year's team. They are experienced, which is both a curse and a blessing; they will be steadier than the underclassmen, but they also have less room for growth. Though both players were respectable last year, they weren't stars like Shazier was in his three seasons. 

Behind those two players are a thin ensemble of unproven backups and hotshot freshmen: Raekwon McMillan, Trey Johnson, Darron Lee, Camren Williams, and Joe Burger. This group is more likely to have a breakout star, but these players have a greater chance of flaming out.

Of this group, true freshman Raekwon McMillan is most likely to become a superstar. I'm not sure Grant or Perry has the requisite athleticism to duplicate Shazier's season; the one guy I'm sure has that ability is McMillan.

With the talent of the individual players accounted for, the other contributor to success is coaching. Hawk, Laurinaitis, and plenty of other linebackers flourished under Jim Heacock, thanks to solid defensive schemes and short, easy tackles. Luke Fickell's defense last year also racked up tackles, but an alarming number of them were of the 15 yards downfield variety.

With Chris Ash looking to install a coherent defensive strategy, Fickell can spend more time on his responsibilities as a position coach. If all goes according to plan, the Buckeyes' pass defense will improve, allowing the linebackers to play aggressively. And then we can answer the question on everyone's mind: do any of Ohio State's linebackers have what it takes to be the next Ryan Shazier?


Comments Show All Comments

AndyVance's picture

When I read the front page headline I thought to myself, "Replace Shazier? That's unpossible!" I'm really excited to see him lace up on Sundays, and intrigued to see who steps up on Saturdays. Good analysis, Nicholas.

EwanJobi's picture

With Chris Ash looking to install a coherent defensive strategy, Fickell can spend more time on his responsibilities as a position coach.

This is quite the gem hiding at the end of the article.

+5 HS
BroJim's picture

Putting a lot on McMillin in this article. My only concern about him is his speed, Shazier was really fast and I think we will miss that this year.

I season my simple food with hunger

Optimistic Buckeye Pessimist's picture

A big factor this year will be the presence of at least 2 serviceable lbs. Last year, it was just Shazier, while Perry and Grant got on the job training. Even if we don't have a Shazier replacement per se, we have double the experience in the unit. 

Read my entire screen name....

+4 HS
buckeyedude's picture

I like the way you think, Optimistic.

I am very optimistic that even without Roby and Shazier, the OSU defense is going to improve tremendously this fall. Coaching matters.



+2 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

I'm optimistic as well. With a defense line that will be trashing the opposing offensive lines, good press coverages I expect the linebackers to be hunting like a pack of mad dogs. Don't tell me these players don't read the press. We have one hungry defensive unit with attitude! Silver Bullets will be flying!

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

+1 HS
buckeyeradar's picture

I'm optimistic as well. With a defense line that will be trashing the opposing offensive lines, good press coverages I expect the linebackers to be hunting like a pack of mad dogs. Don't tell me these players don't read the press. We have one hungry defensive unit with attitude! Silver Bullets will be flying!

I may not be the sharpest crayon in the box but I'm one of the most colorful.

WesPatterson23's picture

I'm so excited to see what that SAM linebacker brings to the D this year. Darron Lee and Chris Worley will be all over the place.

TheToledoBuckeye's picture

I agree and I think Lee and Worley will bring good speed to the linebacker position as well.

"Buckeye, born and bred" - Cris Carter

DefenceWinsChampionships's picture

I really liked the write-up, thought it was fantastic. But I do have one critique. You make a point of using the Boyd touchdown as an example of Shazier being unable to get off a block when in reality he is not supposed to be the guy making that play and, for the most part, he does exactly what he is coached to do. IMO as a coach, the blame for the play falls squarely on the shoulders of Jamal Marcus and #55 (Williams???). How is a run up the middle a DE's fault? Well, as a DE it is of paramount importance that you get hands on the TE/T you are lined up over. Marcus never touches the tackle and this does two things: it allows the T to get a good combo on Washington (knocking him out of the hole), and it give the T a great angle at Williams. Shazier does what he is supposed to: fill the hole and blow up the guard with your inside shoulder, thus forcing the play to the MLB and backside linebacker. Shazier does this perfectly, stoning the G and forcing the play inside him. Williams, even though he's hung out to dry by Marcus, makes the cardinal sin of fighting beneath the T instead of going over the top like he should. By going under the block there is no one left to make the play unless Shazier superman's his way through the G. If he does what he is supposed to, the play is force right into the waiting arms of Perry who is ready to fill the backside lane. 

Sorry for the long winded response. Other than that I thoroughly enjoyed the write-up.

+5 HS
Nicholas Jervey's picture

That's a solid critique of the play.  I wouldn't necessarily say Shazier filled the hole; the pulling guard sealed him well enough that Boyd could have cut to the left behind Shazier.The first problem on the touchdown was that Clemson's left tackle was able to scoop block Adolphus Washington and get to Camren Williams; the second problem was that Shazier couldn't dodge the pulling guard; and the third problem was that C.J. Barnett took a bad angle on Boyd. It took all three events to create the touchdown, and it's certainly not all on Shazier.  In order of culpability, I'd say it goes Marcus, Williams, Barnett, Shazier, Perry, Washington. 

I also want to make clear, since I didn't do a great job articulating it in the article, that I think Ryan Shazier was a world-slayer last season. I don't know if any of this year's linebackers can match Shazier's athleticism, which makes avoiding blocks and being in the right position even more important.

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seafus26's picture

Athletisim and Camren Williams aren't able to mix. Stiff....

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

CentralFloridaBuckeye's picture

I agree you can't "replace" Shazier.  The new group will have to develop their own identity.  I'm confident they will step up and do a good job.  The good news is they have an outstanding D line in front of them to make it a little easier. 

Also, seeing Raekwon run the ball was amazing!  We might need to have a few plays where we let the big fella tote the rock!

Go Bucks!!

Tampabuckeye85's picture

I didn't realize how big Raekwon really was. That's a grown ass man playing high school football lol. I'm excited to see him play. He has a nose for the ball and great at wrapping up on tackles. On a different note has anyone heard anything about Johnson lately? I feel like he's getting buried and wonder if that could lead to him to consider transferring. Considering all the work it took to get him here, it's a shame he didn't play more.

tussey's picture

while it would be nice to replace RDS, I would rather have his abilities and productivity spread across all the linebackers this year and have it be a joint effort in replacing him.

seafus26's picture

I do not agree that Camren Williams could be on of the four to replace Shazier. Just look at your first criteria. No way he matches even a fraction of Shazier's explosive burst. To be fair to Mr. Williams he must have suffered an injury some where along the lines of us bringing him into or while at OSU.  He is as slow as they come in his current state (or at least as seen on the field last year).

Go Bucks and michigan STILL SUCKS!

Oakland Buckeye's picture

Cam Williams ? C'mon man!

like the kid, but he may not even end up in 2 deep!

+1 HS
TraptnMI's picture

Worley is as close to Shazier as we're going to find at OSU. Quick recognition,speed,tenacity and a tackling machine. The boys a natural linebacker!

" It's real good whatcha done Anthony, real good ! "