Historically Ohio State’s linebacking corps has been a can’t-miss unit. Names like Chris Spielman, Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, A.J. Hawk, and Andy Katzenmoyer will forever go down in Buckeye lore.
The 2000s were particularly fruitful for the Scarlet and Gray as evidenced by ESPN awarding the Buckeyes the title “Linebacker U” in their 2000s “Position U” series two months ago. OSU claimed the honor in a blowout, beating second place Alabama by nearly 50 points on a scale that took into account award winners, consensus All-Americans, first-round picks etc.
Unfortunately over the last few seasons, history hasn’t repeated itself in Columbus. For the better part of Meyer’s time at the helm, the unit has been a punching bag. The combination of misses in recruiting, incorrect evaluations and a lack of player development caused a significant drop-off in production from the group. But there’s reason to believe the unit is on the rise in 2014.
The Linebackers in 2013
The moment Ryan Shazier decided to forego his senior season, the Buckeyes lost 55 percent of their starting linebacker tackles from 2013. For those counting at home, that’s Joshua Perry and Curtis Grant’s total combined tackles (64 and 52 respectively) failing to equal Shazier’s monster 144.
Junior linebacker Perry admitted playing alongside Shazier provided a crutch for the unit last season:
“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…We had a lot of deficiencies in the group, just because we saw Ryan go out there and we knew 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.”
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, Luke Fickell, has even suggested the loss of Shazier has provided “addition by subtraction” with the light coming on for “five, six, seven guys” as they see a window of opportunity to step into playing time. That’s good news for any Buckeye fan as depth at the unit was an issue last year with all linebackers outside of the starting three failing to tally more than 15 tackles.
Right now, the only player who appears to have a starting spot locked down is Perry. The junior ranked fourth on the team in tackles last season and has been busy in Mickey Marotti’s workshop to ensure that number climbs this year. Perry will move to the weak side this season, opening up a spot on the strong side, which (at least for Navy) will most likely go to sophomore Darron Lee (though redshirt freshman Chris Worley, Fickell maintains, isn't far behind).
|44||LB||BERGER, KYLE||6-1||229||FR||Cleveland, OH|
|30||LB||BOGARD, DEVAN||6-0||210||JR||Cleveland, OH|
|33||LB||BOOKER, DANTE||6-2||220||FR||Akron, OH|
|48||LB||BURGER, JOE||6-2||230||JR||Cincinnati, OH|
|38||LB||FADA, CRAIG||6-0||233||JR||Columbus, OH|
|14||LB||GRANT, CURTIS||6-3||240||SR||Richmond, VA|
|36||LB||JOHNSON, TREY||6-1||225||SO||Lawrenceville, GA|
|43||LB||LEE, DARRON||6-2||230||SO||New Albany, OH|
|42||LB||MAWHIRTER, AARON||6-2||230||SO||Sandusky, OH|
|5||LB||McMILLAN, RAEKWON||6-2||240||FR||Hinesville, GA|
|37||LB||PERRY, JOSHUA||6-4||250||JR||Galena, OH|
|46||LB||SNYDER, NICK||6-1||215||JR||Columbus, OH|
|55||LB||WILLIAMS, CAMREN||6-1||231||JR||West Roxbury, MA|
|35||LB||WORLEY, CHRIS||6-2||218||FR||Cleveland, OH|
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Lee wowed coaches during the offseason, and he spent the majority of spring ball with the ones. He’s been singled out time and time again as a kid who goes incredibly hard. While it’s clear he has some growth to do (moving from covering kickoffs to a starting linebacker spot will do that to you), it appears his number will be called in Baltimore.
Of all the position battles, the starting middle linebacker spot presents the most intrigue. Grant is entering his final season in Columbus and his career hasn’t progressed as quickly as many believed. Hyped as an all-everything five-star out of high school, Grant has struggled to fill the stat sheet during his three years in the program. This season has a bit of a do-or-die feel for Grant as he’s being pushed by a player made in his likeness: five-star freshman Raekwon McMillan.
McMillan has impressed the coaching staff immediately and accolades have been doled out in tandem. McMillan and freshman wide receiver Johnnie Dixon were given the honor of spending the first days of fall camp with the upperclassmen and Raekwon was one of the first freshmen to lose his black stripe.
It sounds like Grant has embraced the competition and believes it will push him to succeed. McMillan might not be held out of a starting spot all year, but I still like Grant to start August 30th.
Meyer and company have been working to re-stock the cupboards when it comes to the linebacking unit, and they will continue to do so in 2015. Because of that due-diligence, this could be the first year Meyer’s Buckeye linebackers have some semblance of depth.
Worley practiced as a safety last year, but is pushing Lee for playing time. It should be interesting to watch him progress.
Other backups who contributed last season include junior Camren Williams, who had 15 tackles and backed Perry on the strong side, sophomore Trey Johnson, who finished last season with 11 tackles, junior Devan Bogard, who contributed seven tackles and junior Joe Burger, who ended the year with two tackles.
In addition to McMillan, the coaching staff brought in two new recruits in four stars Kyle Berger and Dante Booker. Unfortunately, Berger re-tore his ACL in camp and is out indefinitely. The hope is he can get back on his feet soon. It’s not clear if Booker will see playing time immediately, but if Fickell is right about “five, six, seven” guys that can contribute, Dante could factor in.
The Buckeyes lost Ryan Shazier, the 2013 Big Ten leader in tackles, an Associated Press All-American and first-round NFL Draft pick. That kind of production isn’t something you replace overnight. But, the coaching staff believes the loss of Shazier will be addition by subtraction as the remaining players on the unit are hungry to fill the void.
The combination of a simplified defensive scheme, an attitude adjustment, and an infusion of young talent has the coaching staff high on the group headed into fall. The unit has a good mix of veterans and underclassmen that should help speed up the progression.
Meyer has long been down on the linebackers, but their work over the summer has him feeling confident. Urban isn’t big on undue praise which is why this quote from Big Ten Media Days should give Buckeye fans hope for the future:
“It’s about time we played linebacker ball, linebacker play the way Ohio State is used to…I think you’re going to see it this year.”
- McMillan was the highest rated player in the 2014 recruiting class
- Dante Booker was named Ohio’s Mr. Football in 2013
- The addition of Chris Worley in 2013 helped OSU continue the streak of at least one Glenville Tarblooder in every recruiting class since 2002
- Darron Lee’s mother, Candice, is a reporter for NBC4, Columbus’ NBC affiliate