Once upon a time, Ohio State’s linebackers were Urban Meyer’s favorite punching bag. As the Buckeyes brace for spring ball — the formal beginning of their national title defense — the unit might be the team’s strongest.
It’s an evolution that went something like this:
- In 2012, the unit was so thin and injury-ridden that Meyer asked Zach Boren, the former senior fullback, to switch positions in the middle of the season. Boren did so and helped the Buckeyes preserve a 12-0 campaign.
- In 2013, the group was anchored by All-American Ryan Shazier, who went on to be a first-round NFL Draft pick. Outside of his talent, though, Meyer lamented the unit as one of the team’s weakest links. “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,” he said in November 2013. Three months later, on National Signing Day, Meyer said, "Without question, the position that’s not up to standard is linebacker at Ohio State. A lot of mistakes have been made. There are players that have not been developed. I could go on and on and on.”
So it was somewhat of a surprise when Meyer sang the group’s praises at Big Ten Media Days last July in Chicago. “(It’s) one of our stronger groups. 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,” Meyer said.
He added: “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.”
He was right. By December, Meyer couldn’t stop kvelling over the unit.
It was for good reason.
There was Joshua Perry, the junior who embraced his platform with the program and whom Meyer said will be a captain next season. He led the team with 124 tackles.
There was Darron Lee, the redshirt freshman who was once a quarterback and safety, morphed into one of the team's top playmakers. He made 81 tackles, 16.5 tackles-for-loss and 7.5 sacks.
There was Curtis Grant, the much-maligned senior who emerged as one of the team's most-fiery vocal leaders in the locker room and on the field. After a mostly disappointing career in Columbus, he finished his final campaign in relatively strong fashion, recording 69 tackles.
And then there was Raekwon McMillian, the blue-chip freshman from Georgia who split time with Grant at the middle linebacker position. He made 54 tackles while rotating with his senior counterpart.
And with Ohio State's spring practices set to begin on Tuesday morning, the Buckeyes' defense — one that morphed into the country's better units by the end of the postseason — might be anchored by the unit with Lee, Perry and McMillan returning to the starting lineup. There's a real correlation to be had there.
If Ohio State is to defend its national championship, it'll have as solid of a linebacking corps it's had under Meyer with essentially three returning starters and a bevy of young faces (like Dante Booker, Justin Hilliard, Jerome Baker, and Nick Conner to name a few) who will compete for spots on the depth chart. Expect the unit to get better this spring, too.