Ohio State’s linebackers have frustrated Urban Meyer more than Michigan in his first two seasons. After all, Meyer sports a perfect 2-0 record against the maize and blue. But those pesky linebackers have given him and Luke Fickell worrisome moments.
Correcting the problem started in recruiting, an area where Meyer believes the issue also began. The Buckeyes have missed out, been incorrect in their evaluations and been unsuccessful in developing players.
Since James Laurinaitis’s three-time All-American career, Ryan Shazier is the only difference-making linebacker Ohio State’s had. It’s a situation that trumps history. Stretching back decades, the Silver Bullets have been built on consistently strong linebacker play.
Meyer hopes – and believes – the Buckeyes are going forward and re-winding to the past. In 2014, Ohio State signed three linebackers – Raekwon McMillan, Kyle Berger and Dante Booker (Sam Hubbard is reportedly moving to tight end). On National Signing Day, the brutally honest Ohio State head coach didn’t cloak his feelings behind coachspeek.
“Without question the position that’s not up to standard is linebacker at Ohio State,” Meyer said. “A lot of mistakes have been made. There are players that have not been developed. I could go on and on and on. We need these [three] guys to come in and play.”
And Ohio State isn’t stopping there. The Buckeyes already hold verbal commitments from Nick Connor and the nation’s top outside linebacker, Justin Hilliard. Next on the list is Cleveland Benedictine’s Jerome Baker, who announces at 10 a.m. between Ohio State, Florida and Tennessee.
Hilliard caught front-row glimpses of the Buckeyes’ linebacker decline. He was neighbors with Jordan Hicks when he spurned Ohio State for Texas. That started a four-year trend where the top-rated linebacker in the state didn’t play for the Buckeyes. Next came Trey Depriest and Alabama. Curtis Grant (Virginia) came to Columbus as the nation’s top recruit by some services, but entering his senior season, Grant remains an enigma.
Dating to February, Ohio State’s ended the recruiting struggles at linebacker.
“I’m putting pressure on them, on Coach Fickell and on myself to get them ready to play next year,” Meyer said on signing day about the recent crop of linebackers. “They have to play for us. There’s no redshirt plans for those players at all.”
St. Xavier head coach Steve Spect said following Hilliard’s announcement that Meyer usually gets what he wants. It’s a true statement when it comes to recruiting. Zeroing in on the nation’s best linebackers was a priority and a mission that’s been executed with gusto. Any coach will tell you there’s no such thing as too many linebackers.
That’s why it might seem to some that the Buckeyes have them on backorder. During the spring, Grant, Joshua Perry and Darron Lee emerged from the ashes to instill a dose of confidence in the coaching staff. It came on the heels of losing former five-star recruit Mike Mitchell to a transfer.
Mitchell’s case acts as a bellowing warning alarm that it isn’t as easy as putting on a uniform. Future seasons at Ohio State – starting with 2014 – will include intense competition at the linebacker position. Four- and five-star recruits will find themselves watching from the sidelines.
McMillan and Hilliard admitted they’ll embrace it and the added competition. They’re aware of who came before them and who could come after.
“I know it’s going to be hard. I believe in competition,” Hilliard said. “Whoever is the best player out there is going to play.”
It’s that attitude and determination that leads onlookers to believe the linebackers will finally be Ohio State-ish. Something Meyer said didn’t exist last season. Penn State might call themselves Linebacker U., but Ohio State – the home of Randy Gradishar, Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, A.J. Hawk, Steve Tovar, Tom Cousineau, Laurinaitis and others – deserves special mention.
It’s why Meyer’s been so stern with – well, it sounds like himself, Fickell and the players. But he’s been vague in pointing fingers. Facts are facts, though, and aside from Shazier’s yeoman’s effort, there’s been little production from the position.
So Ohio State continues to fill its cupboard, to the point where it could overflow. The Buckeyes will have 10 scholarship linebackers this season – a number that will grow in 2015.
“I heard it’s a great day to be a Buckeye,” Meyer told a reporter when Hilliard and Jashon Cornell committed within minutes of each other.
Meyer’s greatest day might be when he no longer worries about the linebacker position.