Five-Star vs. Five-Star: Can the Senior Hold Off the Freshman?

By Kyle Rowland on March 12, 2014 at 9:15 am

College athletics feature a merry-go-round of talent, a constant carousel of new players. The phrase “out with the old, in with the new” fits college sports so perfectly that coaches could entertain its use on the recruiting trail.

Each February brings optimism with recruiting classes. Dozens of players are lauded with nary a hint of any shortcomings. Sooner or later, reality ekes its way into the picture. That stone-cold truth came three years ago for linebacker Curtis Grant, the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2011.

The sure-fire starter – at least that’s what everyone projected – didn’t start his freshman season. Grant was benched in favor of a fullback during his sophomore year and didn’t became a dependable first-team player until he was a junior. Mike Mitchell went through a similar phase last year and is now slated to transfer.

Hear that Raekwon McMillian? That’s not to dismiss the talented true freshman, but serve as a history lesson in how difficult it is to go from Friday Night Lights to the 105,000-plus seat Ohio Stadium. Of course, McMillan could be another Chris Spielman or Andy Katzenmoyer – an impact freshman who can’t be kept off the field.

“Everybody expects you to just be an unstoppable guy,” Grant said. “What they don't understand is that it takes time. Coming out of high school and then playing with grown men is totally different. Once you get adjusted, you’re fine.”

For now, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell is banking on Grant’s continued progression. The former five-star recorded 52 tackles, four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a fumble recovery in 2013. Grant told himself it was now or never prior to last season. Those words are even more powerful a year later – and true.

“I think he is refocused,” Fickell said. “We need senior leadership. You’re best when your seniors play best. When they play really good, you’re going to have a good season.”

There’s an open competition at all three linebacker positions with Grant, fellow returning starter Joshua Perry and sophomore Darron Lee practicing with the first-team defense. It took Meyer all of one day to send barbs toward the defense and linebackers, which has become a common theme.

When Meyer challenges the linebackers and praises the unit’s youth, Grant embraces the challenge. It makes it easier to put in the work and exude confidence in front of coaches. The unpredictability of a new season keeps players alert and in sync with the action.

“We need senior leadership. You’re best when your seniors play best.”– Luke Fickell

“You always want to come in and get started right away, so when your number is called, you will be ready to go,” Grant said.

You won’t find the senior sulking about McMillan applying pressure or Meyer’s maxim of guaranteed playing time for the nation’s top incoming freshman linebacker. Instead, you’ll see Grant helping a teammate and hear him deliver similar plaudits. Welcoming competition only furthers team camaraderie.

“Raekwon McMillan looks real good,” Grant said. “He’s very talented and comes in here with a lot of things that a lot of freshmen don't come in with. When a guy comes in like that, that talented, you know it makes yourself want to work on your craft more and do the things that you need to do to get even better.”

Constant breakdowns led to a lack of production during Meyer’s first two seasons, and he noticed. So Meyer’s taking on a larger role on the defensive side of the ball, and he wants a simpler, faster scheme. You won’t find any players arguing.

“The easier it is for us, the less thinking we have to do, the faster we play,” Grant said.

A major part in his inability to develop as an underclassman was due to not picking up concepts. Grasping college football came slow. Grant lost confidence and his tentativeness on the field translated into uninspiring play. Combined with pressure, he was overwhelmed in the moment.

Now entering his final season in scarlet and gray, Grant is the voice taking over for the departed Ryan Shazier. The middle linebacker occupies the most important spot on defense, acting as the unit’s quarterback. Grant embraced that role the past two seasons, becoming a vocal presence in winter conditioning.

“The most important thing is we ask our guys to do their one-11th and play together,” Fickell said. “It’s not any different for the coaches. It doesn’t matter about titles. Coach [Meyer] has challenged us. For the last month, we have been in there and battling through things so we can be on the same page.”

Grant’s page has been flipped to the final chapter; one he hopes is filled with the potential that accompanied him on his journey to Columbus. 

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