For a defense and, in particular, a group of linebackers in search of redemption, filling the gaping hole left by former linebacker Ryan Shazier is among its biggest priorities.
Shazier, who was drafted 15th overall in the NFL Draft in May, led Ohio State with 143 tackles (for perspective, that was at least 59 stops more than anyone else) last season.
So it’s interesting, then, when the Buckeyes say they might be better off without one of the best players of the last decade.
“Sometimes, you get addition by subtraction,” co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said Wednesday. That’s sort of a bizarre thing to say, but hear him out.
“We lose a great one and we lose a guy that I don’t know if you can replace the production he had. I tell you, in turn, we’ve got a group that has really come together,” Fickell said.
“And I say it’s addition by subtraction, we lost one big and a lot of guys – there’s five, six, seven guys – that the light really came on and they saw some ability for themselves to step up and do some things. It’s gonna be much more of a committee type of thing than some guy that maybe, at the end of the season, breaks our production record like Ryan Shazier did in the last two years.”
Because on one hand, he tracked down and tackled running backs like a heat-seeking missile. On the other, Shazier was so good, in fact, that he might’ve limited the other linebackers around him. It’s no fault of his own, of course, but that doesn’t make the sentiment any less intriguing.
“I think we’ve just got a completely different group … we’re taking a lot more ownership,” junior linebacker Joshua Perry said Thursday. “Ryan’s gone and he did a great job for us last year, but we’re not gonna have that crutch to lean on so we’ve gotta go out there and perform as a group and the more that we can learn and go out there together and do the same thing, I think it’s going to be better for us.”
But rewind for a second. What do you mean Shazier was a crutch?
“I knew kind of that if we weren’t making plays that Ryan was going to be coming there and make a play. Ryan was going to be able to do a lot of things that other guys couldn’t do,” Perry said.
“We had a lot of deficiencies in the group, just because we saw Ryan go out there and we knew that he was gonna play really hard. And we kind of weren’t confident in what we could do, we weren’t playing to the best of our abilities.
“Now that he’s gone, guys are getting more reps, guys are taking more of what they’re doing more seriously. Now we’re all more confident. We’re building depth. That’s really important.”
Conventional wisdom, though, suggests the Buckeyes will struggle without Shazier, who’s arguably the best linebacker to play at the school since James Laurinaitis did. Can you really lose a player of that caliber and be better?
“Yeah you can. Because now you have a mentality,” Perry said. “We’ve heard so much about how the linebackers weren’t playing well last year, how Ryan was really the only good guy out there and we just had a whole bunch of other guys running around … we know that we’ve gotta go out there and play our best ball.”
After all, Ohio State’s new-look defense is depending on them to.
“There’s a lot of exciting things to be said about those guys and we got a ways to go,” Fickell said. “I promise you, that group’s going to be as strong as we’ve had in a while.”