An Xs and Os Primer: Ohio State's LB Positions

By Ross Fulton on July 25, 2013 at 2:00 pm

Today I continue my position-by-position explanation of the responsibilities on the Ohio State defense. Last week I reviewed the defensive line. Today I turn to the linebackers and the all-important nickel back, aka Star position.  

The Linebacker Fit

I previously discussed how the Buckeyes play a four-man, one gap over or under defense. In short, from a traditional 4-3 alignment, the defensive front will shift one gap towards the called side (over) or away (under). 

The linebackers shift the opposite way to account for the uncovered gaps. For instance, with the under the linebackers shift towards the call. The front-side outside Sam linebacker shifts over and down over the tight end and is responsible for the D gap. The middle or Mike linebacker is responsible for the playside B gap. And the Will accounts for the backside A gap. 

With the Over, the opposite is true. The linebackers are responsible for the backside (away from the call) B gap, front-side A gap and front-side C gap.

Two Plus One

The linebackers' shift can happen in one of two ways. Like the defensive line, the linebackers can flip sides, making the Mike always the B gap player and the Will the A. Alternatively, and what OSU is more apt to do, is to maintain the Mike to, and the Will away, from the call. The Mike will  play either the frontside B or A gap, depending upon whether it is an over or under front. 

As is perhaps evident from the above diagrams, OSU does not have one middle linebacker and two outside linebackers. Instead, OSU employs two inside linebackers--the Will and the Mike--and one outside linebacker, the Sam. The defense is designed for the two inside linebackers to make a majority of the tackles. The front five defenders occupy blockers to keep offensive linemen off the inside linebackers. The defense seeks to force the ball carrier inside to the pursuing linebackers, who scrape from inside to out to make tackles. 

But the Mike and Will linebackers also require slightly different skill sets. Since he often aligns to the strength of the offense's formation--the side to which the offense is more likely to run the football--the Mike linebacker is generally slightly larger  and is more of a run stuffer.  The Mike plays the front-side bubble and must take on lead blockers. The Will, by contrast, is smaller and faster to run down plays from the backside. He must be able to scrape quickly to the play-side is allowed to fast flow to the football with less regard for maintaining his backside A gap. Ryan Shazier, for instance, is a far better fit at Will then Mike.   

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The Sam linebacker is a very different position. In the under, the Sam linebacker often aligns over the tight end. He must be big enough to take on blockers at the line of scrimmage and maintain contain. The Sam comes off the field when the Buckeyes transition to their nickel defense. In practice, the Buckeyes spend far more time in nickel. As I recently wrote for Lindy's Buckeyes in the Huddle

The Buckeye defense uses their nickel personnel whenever an offense employs three or more wide receivers. Every ‘spread’ team uses such personnel nearly every down. Ohio State will play nickel almost exclusively against spread teams. Even a more traditional offense such as Wisconsin will use ‘11’ (3 WR, 1 TE, 1RB) or ‘10’ (4 WR, 1 RB) personnel in passing downs. Put these two scenarios together and it becomes clear that Ohio State’s base defense is with five defensive backs. 

As diagrammed above, in the nickel the frontside defensive lineman is responsible for the C gap and the Star is responsible for playing underneath to the wide side of the field.

The Star plays a critical role for the OSU defense.

Against a spread offense, he often lines up over an inside slot receiver. He must be able to both defend plays to wide receivers in the underneath flat as well as apply himself in the run game.

The Star also fills a crucial function as the defense’s ‘force’ or ‘contain’ player. The force player’s responsibility is to maintain outside leverage against a ball carrier. His responsibility is to turn the ball back inside to the defensive pursuit. The reason is simple—if a ball carrier gets outside contain and into the open field there are no defenders to make the tackle and the likely result is a big play. . . .

The star thus must be a true hybrid between a linebacker and safety. He must be stout enough to maintain leverage on lead blockers but nimble enough to cover in open space.

Note below how Star Ohrian Johnson maintains outside leverage, allowing safety CJ Barnett to fill the alley downhill.



Missing Links

The Buckeyes' fortunate run of talent at the Mike and Star positions over the last decade was shattered last year. Holes at these critical positions were a key reason for the defense's inconsistency in the first half of 2012. The OSU defense was not stabilized until the Buckeye coaching staff took Zach Boren from offense and inserted him at Mike, and played Johnson out-of-position at the Star. Both seniors are gone this season, forcing the defensive coaching staff to again fill these positions.

Curtis Grant will receive every opportunity to lock down the position. He looks the part of the prototypical Mike linebacker but needs to demonstrate he can play with the instinct and fluidity to succeed. The next in line may be starting Sam linebacker Josh Perry. As I wrote

Perry is listed as the starting ‘Sam’ linebacker. But, as noted, most of the time Ohio State will remove their Sam linebacker for the nickel. Perry accordingly took extensive snaps at Mike in the nickel this spring. Long and rangy, Perry played well in limited opportunities last fall. He has a very good opportunity to be the second linebacker (with Shazier) in the nickel and play the Mike position. 

In other words, Grant could be the starting Mike and Perry the starting Sam with Perry moving inside and remaining on the field in nickel.

The Star position is shaping up to be an intriguing battle for playing time. Tyvis Powell received the majority of first team reps in Spring Practice, and is angular and provides good coverage ability. It is unclear whether he has the build for the position, but he quieted some of those questions with physical play this spring. It will take all his effort, however, to hold off two players who did not practice this spring.

The first is Devan Bogard, who is recovering from an ACL injury. The coaches are high on Bogard, who was the first freshman to lose his ‘black stripe’ last fall. Bogard has the build and skill set for the position. He will have a good opportunity to grab the position if he is healthy.

The second is Vonn Bell. Bell is more of a rangy free safety and so may not be a natural fit for Star. The coaches will give him every opportunity, however, and he may be too talented to keep off the field.

The outcome of these position battles may well determine how good the Ohio State defense can be in 2013.


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