Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers “Solidifying” Themselves As Ohio State’s Top Two Linebackers

By Dan Hope on August 9, 2022 at 4:01 pm
Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers

Dating back to the spring, all indications have been Tommy Eichenberg and Steele Chambers are in line to be Ohio State’s starting linebackers this year.

Based on what Jim Knowles said after Ohio State’s fifth practice of the spring on Tuesday, it appears Chambers and Eichenberg have separated themselves from the competition.

While issuing a rundown of how the defense has performed so far in camp after practice on Tuesday, Knowles identified Eichenberg and Chambers as the Buckeyes’ top two linebackers. He also named Cody Simon, Teradja Mitchell, Chip Trayanum, C.J. Hicks and Palaie Gaoteote as linebackers who are also pushing for playing time, though he suggested he still has more questions about those linebackers than he does the top two.

“Tommy and Steele have been really solidifying things at linebacker,” Knowles said. “I like Cody and Teradja mixing in and Chip and C.J. And EA’s been kind of a float-around guy for us. I feel like we have potential there for depth, but still developing.”

Asked about how Eichenberg and Chambers have solidified themselves as linebackers he can trust, Ohio State’s new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach cited Eichenberg’s consistency and Chambers’ confidence.

“Tommy is the quiet leader of the defense. He studies, and he shows up like he knows what to do. He rarely makes mistakes,” Knowles said. “And Steele, I think just has a confidence, a little bit more than the other guys in confidence, because he's played. You can see that he's played, he's kind of battle-tested.”

It’s no surprise Chambers and Eichenberg have positioned themselves atop the linebacker depth chart, as they were Ohio State’s top two linebackers by the end of last season. Chambers emerged as Ohio State’s top playmaker at the position during the second half of 2021 even though he had just moved to linebacker from running back in August, while Eichenberg finished last year with a 17-tackle Rose Bowl.

The strongest candidate to challenge them for a starting spot over the next few weeks might be Simon, who started 10 games for the Buckeyes last season before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery prior to the Rose Bowl. Because that surgery sidelined Simon during spring practices, however, Knowles says Simon is still progressing to where he needs to be.

“Cody has great football acumen, great football intelligence. He's tough,” Knowles said. “He didn’t play as much or as full-go as he would have liked to been in the spring. So all I'm seeing with Cody now are just some issues in timing. Timing is so important when you're making tackles, just him kind of getting the rust off. But I really like what I've seen so far.”

Mitchell, the veteran of the linebacker group as a fifth-year senior, has been practicing at both Mike and Sam linebacker so far this spring, suggesting he could be a candidate to play more in three-linebacker packages for the Buckeyes. Knowles said Tuesday, however, that it remains undetermined how much Ohio State will actually use three-linebacker formations, in part because he believes safeties like Kourt Williams and Lathan Ransom are also capable of playing like linebackers in the box.

“We've been using it some,” Knowles said. “But we've also been experimenting with some things with Kourt and Lathan and a couple of safeties that may be able to get the job done without bringing in another linebacker. So there's development at the safety position that may not make that quite as urgent.”

The wild cards of the linebacker depth chart might be Trayanum, Hicks and Gaoteote. Trayanum, who is playing linebacker at the collegiate level for the first time after transferring from Arizona State (where he played running back), drew lots of praise from his fellow Ohio State linebackers on Tuesday when he had his black stripe removed. Hicks has also impressed Knowles as a first-year linebacker, though Knowles said the true freshman hasn’t quite mastered the defense yet to where he can play up to his full potential.

“His upside is fantastic,” Knowles said of Hicks. “He really has a great quickness and athleticism that you don't see out of many linebackers at that size. So it's just a matter of how quickly can he learn, get himself up to speed so that he can use those tools. Sometimes when you're thinking too much, you can't use your tools, right? So we’ll just keep working with C.J. so that he gets it down so he can really cut it loose, but I think his upside is gonna be amazing.”

Gaoteote said he has been taking reps at the Will, Sam and Jack linebacker positions, giving him the potential to contribute in a variety of different roles.

Over the next couple of weeks, Knowles will continue to divvy up reps at linebacker – where Ohio State also has Reid Carrico and Gabe Powers on scholarship – as much as possible to see what all of his linebackers can do and who he can trust to play significant snaps when Ohio State opens its season against Notre Dame on Sept. 3. Ultimately, however, Knowles is only going to play the linebackers who have shown him they truly belong on the field.

“During camp, that's why you try to get as many reps as you can to get ones, twos, threes, early on fours. You're trying to get guys seen and reps, but this is the Ohio State,” Knowles said. “So those guys, they have to earn the right to play. So you kind of give them chances when you can, but people have to earn the right to play.”

“Tommy and Steele have been really solidifying things at linebacker ... I feel like we have potential there for depth, but still developing.”– Jim Knowles on Tommy Eichenberg, Steele Chambers and Ohio State’s linebacker depth

As of now, it sounds likely Chambers and Eichenberg will play most of the linebacker snaps against the Fighting Irish, and they’re both happy to be in that position. But they also know that’s just the first step toward having the seasons they want.

“It feels good, but I mean, there's still plenty of stuff to work on,” Chambers said. “There's a lot of shit that both of us can improve on. But we're just working on getting better every single day.”

And while the other linebackers would like to be getting as many first-team reps as Chambers and Eichenberg are, Simon says they’re going to continue working just as hard to do what they can to help the team.

“One of the things about our group is it's not like a selfish thing where it's like, ‘Oh, you're starting, so I don't like you.’ We push each other every day to be that guy,” Simon said. “So no matter who's out there, we're all working together to like when the game goes, we're all gonna be working together anyway. So right now, it's just working hard. It's just camp. So work as hard as you can. And when we're done with it, we'll see what happens.”

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