Glory Years: Ranking the 10 Greatest Seasons by a Linebacker Unit in Ohio State History

By Jake Anderson on May 31, 2020 at 7:15 am
Glory Years: James Laurinaitis
Ohio State Athletics

Welcome to Glory Years, where we rank the top seasons by each position group in Ohio State football history.

While Ohio State rightfully claims DBU (or BIA, if you're into that), the program's legacy at the second level may outmatch its secondary counterparts. With eight different linebackers earning All-American honors in Ohio State's history, the Buckeyes' history in the middle is one of the best in the nation. 

While we have already ranked the top linebacker seasons in program history, it is hard to ignore how the changing game of football has changed defensive schemes and limited the effectiveness of a single tackling machine in the middle. Instead, entire units focus on mobility and agility to avoid mismatches. Because of this, we strived to give credit where credit is due, opting to rank entire linebacking units to determine the greatest trio in Ohio State history.  


Like our individual seasons' rankings of the past, we used a nonparametric approach to find the best linebacker trio in program history. For each year, we used our previous rankings to determine the top three linebackers by the ranking system. Then, we used four box score statistics and three percentage-based statistics to rank each season. 

  • Tackles per Game
  • Tackles for Loss per Game
  • Sacks per Game
  • Tackle Percentage
  • Tackle for Loss Percentage
  • Sack Percentage
  • Chaos Factor

Altogether, the rankings of each of the seven categories were averaged together to create a composite rating. The following outputs were determined to be the ten greatest seasons by a linebacker unit in Ohio State history.

10. 1978

Woody Hayes' final linebacker unit, Tom Cousineau, Kelton Dansler, and Paul Ross were arguably his greatest. The group combined for the most tackles per game of any linebacker group in Ohio State history, averaging over 34 combined takedowns per contest. 

Cousineau owns five of the 10 best single-game tackling performances in Buckeye history, including a 29-tackle performance his senior year. He earned First Team All-American honors while breaking the single-season tackles record in 1978. 

9. 1983

A testament to the Buckeyes' depth on the second level, Thomas "Pepper" Johnson, seen as one of the greatest linebackers in Ohio State history, was still a year away from becoming a full-time starter in 1983. Joined by Rowland Tatum and Curt Curtis in our selection, the unit ranks seventh in sack ratio, accounting for 37.5% of the team's total sacks. 

Tatum earned First Team All-Big Ten honors following the season. 

8. 1982

Led by Marcus Marek, linebackers Rowland Tatum and Curt Curtis joined the senior on the second level. The trio accounted for nearly 32% of the team's tackles for loss, the 12th best mark in program history. 

Marek earned consensus All-American honors following his senior year and earned a spot on Ohio State's All-Century team. He edged Cousineau by three tackles and is Ohio State's all-time leading tackler. 

7. 2007

The most recent trio in our top 10, James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman, and Larry Grant were instrumental in Ohio State's title race in 2007. The group ranks third in tackle percentage (33.2%) and seventh in sacks per game (0.88 per game). 

Laurinaitis was a three-time consensus All-American and was the most important defensive player on two teams that competed made the BCS National Championship game. He was the first player to ever win two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards. Freeman was a two-time Second Team All-Big Ten selection. 

6. 1991

In John Cooper's fourth year in Columbus, Steve Tovar, Judah Herman, and Jason Simmons were a commanding trio on the defensive side of the ball. The trio has the second-most tackles for loss per game (3.375 per game) and tackles for loss percentage (39.7%) in Ohio State history. 

Tovar earned two First Team All-American selections in his junior and senior years. He is fourth in career tackles in Ohio State history. 

5. 1996

A mix of old and young, Greg Bellisari, Andy Katzenmoyer, and Ryan Miller were an aggressive group with a tendency to get into the backfield in the mid-1990s. Bellisari, Katzenmoyer, and Miller averaged 3.42 tackles for loss per game (most in program history) and 1.42 sacks per game (third-most in program history). 

Big Kat was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes in 1996. He went on to win the Dick Butkus Award and earned consensus All-American honors in 1997. Bellisari earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors following his senior season. 

4. 1986

In one of the greatest individual seasons in Ohio State history, Chris Spielman came into his own in 1986. The linebackers trio of Spielman, Mike Kee, and Eric Kumerow caused chaos all over the field, averaging more than one forced turnover per game, the second-highest mark in program history. 

Spielman's year included his famous 29-tackle game, tying Tom Cousineau's single-game record. The Canton native earned consensus All-American honors in 1986. Kumerow earned First Team All-Big Ten honors following his junior season. 

3. 1985

In a transition period for the Buckeyes' linebackers, the trio, led by senior Pepper Johnson and joined by Chris Spielman and Byron Lee, overlapped the careers two of the greatest defensive players in Ohio State history. Johnson, Spielman, and Lee accounted for over 34% of the team's total tackles, the highest mark in program history. 

Johnson earned All-American honors after leading the Buckeyes in tackles following his senior season. Pepper is sixth on Ohio State's all-time tackling list with 379 takedowns. Spielman's first year as a starter was highlighted by his 19-tackle game against No. 1 Iowa. The sophomore earned First Team All-Big Ten honors. 

2. 2005

Capping off a great career, A.J. Hawk, joined by Anthony Schlegel and Bobby Carpenter, saved their best season for last, finishing the season at No. 4 in the AP Poll. The trio ranked in the top-three in tackle percentage, tackle for loss percentage, sack percentage, and sacks per game. 

Hawk was a two-time First Team All-American in 2004 and 2005 and cleaned up nearly every major major defensive award in his senior year. Carpenter earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors. 

1. 1987

The 1987 trio of Chris Spielman, Eric Kumerow, and Ray Jackson stands atop the rest in our list of the 10 greatest linebacker units in Buckeye history. Led by two seniors, the group ranks in the top-seven in all of our categories, including first in chaos per game (1.27 per game) and fourth in tackles for loss percentage (39.2%). 

Spielman earned consensus All-American honors following the season for the second time in his career. His 1987 season is ranked as the fifth-best in program history. Kumerow earned his second-consecutive First-Team All-Big Ten honor following his senior year. 

  Season TPG TFLPG SPG % TCK % TFL % SCK Chaos Score
1 1987 27.27 2.82 1.09 31.8% 39.2% 38.7% 1.27 4.71
2 2005 21.00 2.83 1.63 33.9% 41.5% 45.3% 0.40 9.21
3 1985 22.17 2.25 0.92 25.9% 45.0% 50.0% 0.75 9.71
4 1986 28.00 1.92 0.62 30.9% 32.9% 34.8% 1.08 10.07
5 1996 18.67 3.42 1.42 24.7% 36.3% 41.5% 0.74 11.50
6 1991 17.42 3.38 1.21 23.1% 39.7% 42.6% 0.48 15.00
7 2007 21.62 2.12 0.88 33.2% 27.0% 26.7% 0.38 16.07
8 1982 25.00 1.50 0.50 28.2% 31.6% 30.0% 0.71 16.29
9 1983 24.17 1.50 0.75 25.0% 32.7% 37.5% 0.66 17.00
10 1978 34.08 2.08 0.33 29.7% 36.2% 25.9% 0.46 19.93
11 2008 21.62 1.73 0.65 31.2% 29.6% 31.5% 0.23 20.43
13 2014 17.27 2.10 0.87 25.9% 28.6% 28.9% 0.40 20.50
13 1981 30.42 1.33 0.58 34.2% 26.2% 25.0% 0.41 20.50
14 1990 19.17 1.79 0.75 22.1% 31.2% 34.6% 0.48 20.64
15 2000 16.00 3.00 1.08 24.1% 31.0% 25.0% 0.50 21.64
19 1979 23.58 2.00 0.33 26.6% 25.3% 25.9% 0.65 21.71
19 2002 18.14 2.36 0.57 25.9% 33.0% 19.3% 0.57 21.71
19 2003 17.23 2.19 0.81 25.3% 28.5% 28.4% 0.30 21.71
19 2015 22.31 1.73 0.73 32.8% 27.1% 25.0% 0.23 21.71
20 1973 29.09 1.09 0.36 30.8% 26.1% 25.9% 0.49 22.14

LEGEND: TPG Tackles per Game, TFLPG Tackles for Loss per Game, SPG Sacks per Game, %TCK Tackle Percentage, %TFL Tackle for Loss Percentage, SCK% Sack Percentage

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