CHICAGO – For the better part of his tenure, Urban Meyer’s treated Ohio State’s linebackers like a punching bag.
“The last two years,” he said Monday at Big Ten Media Days, “they weren't what we expect.”
And Meyer, who can be ruthless when addressing his team's on-field performance with the media, likes to let them know about it. He holds few, if any, punches. The first swipe came a year ago.
“The area we still trying to solidify is linebacker … the linebacker is the one area that's the most concerning,” he said Aug. 26.
Another jab came Sept. 16:
“Unfortunately there's some units that there's no competition. I wish our linebacker unit had a little more depth right now and they don't. There's not people competing trying to go take a spot.”
Another came Oct. 28:
“We're not Ohio State expectation level linebacker position. After this past week I think most other positions played at a very high level. And so linebacker position's one we're keeping our finger on hard because we need to improve the level of play and the number of backers we have in the program.”
And another Nov. 11:
“We're nowhere where we need to be as far as the expectation level of the linebacker play here ... as good as a linebacker as ever in the country played at Ohio State, and we need to get back to that."
Ouch. But Meyer hurled his harshest critique toward the group on National Signing Day in February while on his weekly in-season radio show.
"Without question the position that’s not up to standard is linebacker at Ohio State,” he said.
“A lot of mistakes have been made. There are players that have not been developed. I could go on and on and on.”
So naturally, it makes sense Meyer blasted the linebackers once again earlier this week in Chicago, right?
“(It’s) one of our stronger groups,” he said Monday.
“It's the best the group's been right now. And that's just as far as chemistry, as far as trust, as far as operating as a unit."
"So I'm anxious to see them play."
It's a striking contrast in the span of less than six months. So, what happened?
“We took three freshmen there. Dante Booker, Raekwon McMillan and Kyle Berger … Josh Perry's done a great job at leadership and so has Curtis Grant,” Meyer said.
Without former All-American and current Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier, Ohio State will rely on a cast of characters to fix a unit Meyer publicly blasted at every turn last season.
Perry and Grant are the remaining veterans of the group and more will be asked of them than ever before. It'll need Darron Lee, an emerging sophomore who's built like a safety, to build upon a mountain of momentum forged in the spring.
It needs McMillan, one of the nation's top recruits, to make an impact. It needs the likes of Booker, Berger, Chris Worley, Camren Williams, Devan Bogard, Trey Johnson, Joe Burger and Craig Fada to provide depth for a group that didn't have such a luxury a year ago.
Something happened over the summer and it caught Meyer's eye. Moreover, it was enough for the hard-to-please coach to get up on a national platform and give the unit a pat on the back instead of a slap in the face.
“It's about time we played linebacker ball, linebacker play the way Ohio State is used to," he said. "I think you're going to see it this year.”
That's a big leap. But then again, Meyer probably knows something we don't.