Before he even played for Ohio State, Andy Katzenmoyer was a household name in Columbus. The product of Westerville South was held out of contact practices in high school because of the ferocity with which he hit ball carriers.
By the time he enrolled at Ohio State for the 1996 season – a year after Michigan running back Tim Biakabutuka’s 314-yard tour de force – the hoopla surrounding Katzenmoyer was becoming a burden. He wore No. 45 to honor Archie Griffin, which attracted endless attention, and predictions of his instant impact were in every newspaper and magazine.
Then the games began.
In the season opener against Rice, Katzenmoyer led the team in tackles (eight), tackles for loss (three) and sacks (two). He finished his freshman season with an astounding 23 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. Katzenmoyer remains the lone Buckeye to ever start the opener at linebacker as a true freshman.
Could Raekwon McMillan be next?
“Raekwon looks real good,” fellow linebacker Curtis Grant said. “He’s really talented. He comes in with a lot of things freshmen don’t come in with. When a guy comes in that talented, it makes you want to work on your craft more and do the things you need to do to continue to get better.”
In some ways it already appears that history is repeating itself. McMillan isn’t from Central Ohio – or anywhere in the state, for that matter – and he won’t be wearing the number of an all-time great. But like 1995, 2013 ended with a groan.
The Buckeyes lost the final two games of both seasons after carrying national championship aspirations deep into the year. It was Michigan and Tennessee who humbled Ohio State in 1995 – Michigan State and Clemson played the role of spoiler in 2013.
Another similarity: Ohio State’s uninspiring linebacker play.
John Cooper was forced to move outside linebacker Greg Bellisari inside during the ’95 season, which contributed to defensive breakdowns in that infamous Michigan game. In 2012, Urban Meyer shifted Zach Boren from fullback to middle linebacker, while Grant occupied the position last season.
A key ingredient for the 1996 team was Katzenmoyer’s ability to make the middle of the defense an asset. Eighteen years later, McMillan, the nation’s top middle linebacker recruit, could do the same.
Current co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell was a four-year starter on the 1996 team. It’s safe to say he was skeptical of an 18-year-old freshman being thrust into a leading role.
“Deep down I was concerned,” Fickell said in a 1996 Sports Illustrated profile of Katzenmoyer. “The first couple of games, I thought, What’s this kid going to do when it comes down to a big play? Will he remember to pick up the back coming up the middle on a wheel route?”
Fickell once again has a front-row seat to a freshman phenom. This time, his opinion has changed.
“Can a freshman do it? Yeah, he can,” Fickell said during the spring.
But in the same breath he spoke about the importance of veterans.
“We need senior leadership,” Fickell said. “You’re best when your seniors play best. You can evaluate all the years I’ve been here, when the seniors play really well, you’re going to have a good season.”
It’s hard to dispute Fickell’s statement. Championship teams have been built on veterans across the entire sports landscape for decades. But there’s no automatic disqualification if teams utilize young talent. College basketball is becoming younger and younger, Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl as a second-year unknown and Tim Duncan’s presence factored into the Spurs’ worst-to-first two-year rise.
The 1996 Buckeyes were loaded with first-year players who were complemented by veteran leadership. The freshmen included Katzenmoyer, David Boston and Michael Wiley, with upperclassmen Fickell, Bellisari, Mike Vrabel, Orlando Pace and Shawn Springs acted as reinforcements.
Might 2014 feature McMillan, Curtis Samuel and Johnnie Dixon as the heralded freshmen and Braxton Miller, Michael Bennett, Devin Smith and Doran Grant serving as the veterans? Meyer’s value in freshmen has never been hidden.
“He always tells us that he wants incoming freshmen to play early,” McMillan said. “He wants us not to sit back and relax and wait for the next guy, but to practice every day like you’re competing for a job and attack every drill like it’s your last drill.
“I know nothing is given at Ohio State.”
After a season that bore witness to missed tackles galore and blown coverages by the bushel, help is needed. The possibility that it points to a freshman linebacker is not far-fetched, even if a senior is ahead of him on the depth chart. Meyer and Fickell aren’t expecting historic Katzenmeyer-esque numbers. They just want production.
“I think I’ll be able to get it pretty quickly because in high school I was told to run the defense on the field and told to make adjustments according to the offense on the field," McMillan said. “Your coach has to have trust in you. I felt like in high school everybody on my coaching staff trusted me, and even if I did make a bad call on the field, I’ll go 100 percent and fly to the ball. That makes up for a lot of errors.”
Some might say tabbing Grant as the next big thing – the title McMillan currently holds – was an error or mistake of towering heights. But the Virginia native has steadily improved since Meyer came on board. Grant knows from experience how difficult it can be to see the field as a freshman.
The game is considerably different than high school, no matter what players think before they’re actually in a game. But changes to the Buckeyes’ defensive philosophy have made the unit simpler to grasp.
Still, accomplishing something only one other player has achieved in the history of the tradition-rich program would be, well, historic.
“Every day, I come in with the mindset that the five-star stuff and high school really don’t matter anymore,” McMillan said. “All that can be thrown in the trash can right now because I’m just a freshman in college who got here in January. I have to come in and work hard like everybody else so I can make a name for myself on the field.”