Steele Chambers has gone from being a reserve running back to a starting linebacker in less than four months.
When Ohio State began preseason camp in August, Chambers still wasn’t sure if he even wanted to play linebacker for the Buckeyes. Although he decided to make the full-time move to defense shortly after camp began, he said at the time that it was a hard decision because he loved playing running back and that it had been “insanely frustrating” trying to get up to speed at linebacker after playing no snaps on defense in his first two years at Ohio State.
That said, Chambers knew moving to linebacker could give him an opportunity to make a real impact for Ohio State this year – an opportunity he might not have had at running back, where TreVeyon Henderson has become an immediate star for the Buckeyes while he was also behind Miyan Williams, Master Teague and Marcus Crowley on the depth chart.
What Chambers’ role on Ohio State’s defense has already become, though, is beyond what he imagined it could be.
“Yeah, I would say it exceeded my expectations. I would say I wasn’t expecting to get on the field this much, to be quite honest,” Chambers said last week.
Despite his lack of experience playing the position collegiately, Chambers was immediately in Ohio State’s linebacker rotation from the first game of the season and quickly began making the case that he was one of the Buckeyes’ best players at the position. While he spent most of the season coming off of the bench, he made his first career start on Saturday against Purdue and appears to have entrenched himself as the Buckeyes’ starting Will linebacker, as he played the most snaps among all linebackers (52) against the Boilermakers.
Chambers’ move into the starting lineup last week was foreshadowed by his performance one week earlier against Nebraska, when Chambers was suspended for the first half due to a second-half targeting penalty against Penn State yet played nearly every snap of the second half and recorded six tackles and a game-sealing interception to earn champion honors in just one half of play.
That performance made a big impression on Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, who now views Chambers as such a valuable piece of the defense that the Buckeyes had planned to take the ball first if they won the coin toss at Nebraska (they ended up getting the ball first anyway after Nebraska won the toss) just so they could potentially have Chambers for one more defensive series.
“We got on the plane to go to Nebraska and we get Chick-fil-A sandwiches, and I almost grabbed him and told him he only gets a half of a sandwich because he’s only playing half the game this week,” Day joked during his radio show last week. “And then on the way home, we said ‘You can have a whole sandwich on the way home, because you played that good.’ He made some really good plays.”
Day said last week that Chambers is “playing with great effort and great confidence,” sparking his quick rise into the starting lineup.
“He’s playing at a starter level, for sure,” Day said last week. “He’s playing as good as anybody else on our defense right now. Now he’s gotta continue that, and we’re still gonna play depth and a bunch of other guys are gonna play, but I just think when you look at the production, it’s been significant.”
Chambers has now graded out as a champion in six of Ohio State’s last seven games to rank third among all Buckeye defenders, behind only safety Ronnie Hickman and defensive end Zach Harrison, for most champion grades this year. Pro Football Focus grades Chambers as Ohio State’s best and the Big Ten’s sixth-best linebacker this season. Although he’s played only the fourth-most total snaps among Ohio State linebackers, Chambers has recorded 33 total tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss with one sack, one interception, two pass breakups and one forced fumble.
Even though he’s still mastering his new position, Chambers has never looked out of place and has consistently played fast.
“Here’s what Steele does: He sees and he goes,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said in October. “Sometimes guys go and then they see. Sometimes they see (pause) and then they go. He sees and he goes. He’s not always right where he’s going yet, because he needs that experience, but when he sees it, he goes. And guys like that are fun to coach.”
Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington said last month that Chambers “comes into work every day with the right mentality,” which Washington believes has enabled Chambers to succeed right away.
“What he brings to the table is that approach of working your tail off and really working at the off-the-field stuff, which is a big part of the position,” Washington said. “Athletically, he flashes, he moves well. But you feel good about where he’s going based on how he is, how he conducts himself and naturally, how he’s performing.”
“He’s playing as good as anybody else on our defense right now.”– Ryan Day on Steele Chambers
Chambers says he’s become “more and more comfortable every single week” as he gains more experience playing on Ohio State’s defense.
“I definitely feel more comfortable, but it’s still hard, because we have to change up stuff every week to stay on our toes and for other teams to not really lock in on what we’re doing,” Chambers said. “So it’s still hard, but I’m definitely getting used to it.”
At a position where the Buckeyes have been searching for the right combination of starters all year, Chambers has become the linebacker they feel they need to have on the field most as they play their biggest games of the season down the stretch. After playing just 51 total snaps on offense in his first two seasons at Ohio State, Chambers played more snaps than that in the Purdue game alone.
And Chambers no longer has any doubt that changing positions was the right decision.
“Definitely happy I made the transition looking back to it,” Chambers said. “This has been awesome.”