One name was mentioned perhaps more than any other Buckeye defender this spring.
No matter who was asked over the last several months, Ohio State players and coaches alike, Tommy Eichenberg came up as a player that has established himself as a leader and standout performer on the scarlet and gray defense.
Both Eichenberg and the coaching staff hoped his record-breaking 18-tackle performance in the Rose Bowl, one that earned him defensive MVP honors, would help springboard the Cleveland native toward the next step in his Buckeye career. From all indications throughout the spring, the fourth-year junior is well on his way to a breakthrough for Ohio State.
“I’m very impressed with Tommy Eichenberg,” Ryan Day said in April. “I think he’s really had a really good spring. Playing fast, really decisive. … I think that’s what happens when you’re into your second or third year of playing and you get a lot more experiences. You’re more confident out there. You move faster. You see it. You’re not second-guessing yourself. You’re not tentative. I think I see that across the board, just in general.”
Eichenberg surprised many when he emerged as a starter at Mike linebacker for Ohio State to begin the 2021 season, and his inconsistent play early drew criticism from fans as the Buckeye defense dealt with growing pains. After the Buckeyes lost their Week 2 matchup with Oregon and continued to struggle against Tulsa, Eichenberg lost his starting spot to Cody Simon.
“I think Tommy has been a great leader for us. I really like what I’ve seen from Tommy. He’s mastering the defense quickly and making plays. He’s quiet, but he’s fierce.”– Jim Knowles
It took an injury to Simon, who had shoulder surgery following the Michigan game, for Eichenberg to once again reach the top of the depth chart at linebacker. Once there, though, he displayed what the Buckeye coaching staff saw when it made him a starter at the beginning of the season.
Eichenberg was instrumental in turning things around defensively for the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl, where they gave up 35 points in the first half alone. That number shrank to 10 in the final two quarters, as Eichenberg and company gave the prolific Ohio State offense just enough breathing room to pull off a 48-45 comeback win.
Even with the effort, Eichenberg had to win over a new defensive coordinator and position coach this offseason, as Jim Knowles took over the reins for both Kerry Coombs and Al Washington. If Knowles’ comments are to be taken at face value, Eichenberg has had little trouble making a strong early impression.
“I think Tommy has been a great leader for us,” Knowles said in March. “I really like what I’ve seen from Tommy. He’s mastering the defense quickly and making plays. He’s quiet, but he’s fierce.”
Knowles said he didn’t put much stock into what he saw on tape from his new linebacker corps last season, preferring to wipe the slate clean and allow his first position room at Ohio State to prove themselves without any preconceived notions hampering his judgment.
“It’s difficult for me to do because I just got here, you know, and I tried to just be and have a completely open mind with where guys were at, because I didn't try to take into account anything from the past,” Knowles said. “But I would say because I work with them a lot, Tommy Eichenberg I thought did a heck of a job because I threw a lot at them. I'm very demanding on the linebackers to learn it and learn it right now. And I just thought he picked everything up. His football intelligence was great. And he seemed to really understand the system and you know from start to finish, he figured things out.”
Eichenberg’s teammates have been just as impressed by the strides he’s taken this offseason. For a young linebacker like Reid Carrico, Eichenberg has provided an ideal model for success in the Ohio State system in multiple regards.
“You want to be a cookie-cutter as far as the culture goes. You got to give great effort. You got to be a good tackler. You got to put the Silver Bullets first,” Carrico said. “And then personally, when it comes to finding a niche or a role, you got to have something that sets you apart. So Tommy Eichenberg knows the game just about front to back. He makes mistakes, but he's very sharp.”
Teradja Mitchell, who began last season starting next to Eichenberg at Will linebacker, used similar language to Knowles when describing his approach to leadership and the game itself.
“He's definitely quiet, but he's fierce, man. Tommy's a fierce dude and I love to be around him,” Mitchell said this spring. “He's quiet but like I said, he takes control when he has to. … It's hard to explain. He's just about his business. Like he comes in, there's no games with Tommy. He'll play around a little bit, crack a smile here and there, but he's serious. He's about his business.”
Even after the transfers of several Buckeye linebackers, there is still a surplus of names at the position. From 2020 to 2021, Ohio State transitioned from regularly playing three linebackers to utilizing just two in its base look, and Knowles’ scheme will continue that 4-2-5 alignment.
But even with Simon, Mitchell, Carrico, transfers Palaie Gaoteote and Chip Trayanum and true freshmen C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers all looking for roles in 2022, it seems Eichenberg has his more or less locked down. For now anyway.
Steele Chambers, also a frontrunner to begin the new year a starter at linebacker, said he and Eichenberg were only getting started a season ago. If that is the case, it’s an exciting prospect for an Ohio State defense that has plenty of room for improvement come fall.
“Off the top of my head I know me, like Tommy, (Ronnie Hickman), we are all guys that just really started getting into our roles last year,” Chambers said. “I mean, we were kind of tiptoeing around sometimes, but now it's just we start to understand exactly what we're doing and we can just go. Just get that experience under us.”