Frustration would be an understatement.
Steele Chambers described himself as downright “pissed off” at times this past summer as he dealt with the difficulties of switching from running back to linebacker ahead of his third season at Ohio State.
It took until midway through the season before Chambers truly became comfortable, but once he did, the Georgia native looked like one of the best defensive performers on the field as the Buckeyes appeared to make significant improvements over the course of the year. Just a few months removed from playing on the other side of the ball entirely, Chambers worked his way into a starting spot for the first time by Nov. 13, when Ohio State trounced Purdue, 59-31.
“It feels like just playing out on the yard like a little kid,” Chambers said during Ohio State’s on-campus Rose Bowl media day on Dec. 16. “It feels fun again. … It took time. There were a bunch of times throughout the summer definitely where I was just pissed off out here. Just learning new defenses, feeling like I was behind everyone. But probably after game four or five, I started really getting the hang of it, and then I was just having fun.”
But two weeks after cracking the starting lineup, things became far less fun for Chambers and the Buckeyes in Ann Arbor, and some of those frustrations reared their head again.
Michigan put up 42 points in its first rivalry win in a decade, and gashed Ohio State for nearly 300 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. Afterward, Wolverine offensive coordinator Josh Gattis questioned the toughness of the Buckeye defense and referred to the group as a “finesse” team.
"I personally thought we played pretty soft (against Michigan), me included."– Ohio State linebacker Steele Chambers
While some Buckeyes understandably took umbrage to the comment, Chambers – who admittedly had one of his poorest performances of the season against Michigan – actually agreed with it.
“It definitely stung, but at the end of the day, he was right,” Chambers said. “I personally thought we played pretty soft, me included – probably one of the bigger ones. But it just lights a fire under us, hopefully we can get ready for next year.”
Chambers said the loss, and his performance in particular, highlighted some of the elements of his game that he must improve to reach his full potential at linebacker. Chambers said he was one of the Buckeyes, along with C.J. Stroud, that suffered from the flu during The Game, and that he actually lost five to 10 pounds due to the illness. In order to better handle the physical demands of an inside linebacker, Chambers said he will have to gain back that weight plus another 10 pounds.
“Just taking on blocks and stuff, going against linemen,” Chambers said. “I think right now, during this part of bowl practice, we’re really starting to work on that, going against probably one of the best lines in the country. So they’re definitely helping me get better. I think after going through that and then putting on some more weight in the offseason, I’ll be ready. Especially for next year.”
For the past two seasons, Chambers has stayed around 225 pounds while strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti has had him on a “maintain plan” in the weight room. By the start of next season, Chambers’ goal is to get to 235 pounds.
Chambers won’t have to wait until next season to take on another physical, run-heavy offense like the one Michigan possesses. The Buckeyes have a similar task ahead of them with Utah coming up in the Rose Bowl on Saturday.
“I feel like this is a good opportunity to show that we’ve made adjustments based on last game,” Chambers said. “I think it’s a good game to prove ourselves, prove that we’re a tough team, that we’re a physical team and that we can handle that kind of stuff.”
At the conclusion of the bowl game, there’ll be even more adjustments on the horizon for Chambers and the Buckeye defense. The hire of Oklahoma State’s Jim Knowles as defensive coordinator means that at a minimum, there’ll be a new voice leading the way for the Buckeyes, and Chambers expects some tweaks to follow as well.
“When we first had the Zoom call with Coach Day about the change whenever they hired him, he said I think we’re gonna be playing just our base defense. But with a new coach I’m assuming there’s gonna be a bunch of different packages, like third down stuff, that he’s gonna implement,” Chambers said. “So I really don’t know yet.”
Chambers did “a little bit” of research on Knowles following the news of his hire, but said he just hopes the Buckeyes can finish with similar defensive rankings to the ones the Cowboys have posted this season, in which they rank third nationally in total defense (278.4 yards allowed per game) and tied for seventh nationally in scoring defense (16.8 points allowed per game).
As far as personnel is concerned, Chambers believes the Buckeyes already have all the necessary ingredients to have an elite defense come 2022.
“Honestly, I think we have all the pieces to be a great defense,” Chambers said. “As far as the team up north game, I think that was more of just an attitude thing. We just gotta have just a little more fire in us, just be more physical. I think we got all the pieces, we’re just now starting to develop the experience, so I think next year it’s really gonna come together.”
No matter how much change takes place, Chambers – who still has room to grow after a quick transition to his new position – figures to be an integral member of the Buckeye defense once again in 2022. The switch from running back to linebacker was so successful for Chambers that the Ohio State coaching staff will try another such switch with Arizona State transfer running back DeaMonte Trayanum, who announced on Christmas Day that he’ll be coming to Columbus to play defense.
Chambers will have plenty of advice for the Akron native, and he said chief among the reasons for his successful transition is the commitment he made to the move, even with the challenges along the way.
“It’s tough, but at the end of the day you can’t really just dip your toe in one and stay in the other. I think you just gotta fully go in,” Chambers said. “So whenever I made the change, I was fully in on linebacker. Just can’t get caught in the middle. … Don’t get caught in the middle, just dive in.”