Middle Linebacker Tommy Eichenberg Anchors Ohio State's Hopes of a Silver Bullets Rebirth

By Chris Lauderback on May 21, 2023 at 10:10 am
Tommy Eichenberg

Optimism is running high after defensive coordinator Jim Knowles improved Ohio State's 2022 defense in nearly every statistical category versus the previous season, despite the Buckeyes giving up what felt like a million points in back-to-back losses to Michigan and Georgia. 

In fact, it was 87 points and 1,063 yards allowed - much of that via explosive plays - that doomed the 2022 Buckeyes from reaching their goals of winning the Big Ten and capturing a national title but the campaign wasn't without improvement. 

The 2022 group shaved 1.8 points per game allowed off the 2021 defense's effort (21.0 from 22.8), gave up 51 fewer total yards per game (321 from 372) and made a major jump in pass defense allowing just 200 yards through the air per game to rank No. 26 nationally after the 2021 defense surrendered nearly 246 yards per contest to slot 96th in the land. 

At the heart of the improvement was none other than middle linebacker Tommy Eichenberg. A full-time starter for the first time in his Ohio State career, all Eichenberg did was serve as the heartbeat of the defense, via a lunch-pail approach and consistently stellar play. 

Though the entire defense needed to learn Knowles' new system, Eichenberg seemed to know it inside and out right from the jump as his football IQ, discipline and quickness to the hole produced a team-high 120 tackles, good for the most by a Buckeye in a single-season since Joshua Perry's 124 in 2014. 

In fact, those 120 stops marked the first time since 2016 (Raekwon McMillan) that a Buckeye logged at least 100 tackles and his tally was 43 clear of last year's second-leading tackler, Steele Chambers. 

The former 2019 four-star recruit out of St. Ignatius also led the team with 12 tackles for loss while adding 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hurries and three pass breakups plus a pick-six. 

His outstanding season garnered first-team All-American honors from PFF and Bleacher Report along with first-team All-B1G accolades from both media and coaches. Eichenberg was also named to five different second-team All-American squads. 

All this after a modest four starts in 2021 though he went out like a lion racking up an Ohio State Rose Bowl record 17 stops in the thrilling come-from-behind win over Utah.

An example of his tough as nails makeup, Eichenberg played at least the last three games of the 2022 slate with a pair of mangled hands. That fact wasn't lost on his teammates or his defensive coordinator

“Tommy's as tough as they come, as tough as any player I've been around. He kind of epitomizes what we want to be as a defense and I think as a program because nothing is going to stop him. No matter what the circumstance or the injury, he's going to show up.”

Even with his injured hands which seem kind of important for a middle linebacker, Eichenberg racked up 13 tackles against Maryland before adding seven versus Michigan and eight against the Bulldogs in the Peach Bowl to round out the season. 

Highlights prior to his injuries including 14 stops versus Wisconsin, 15 versus Penn State and 13 the following week at Northwestern. 

With the staff focused on allowing his mitts to recover, Eichenberg was held out of 2023's spring ball and his absence combined with the emergence of some returning teammates alongside new arrivals via the transfer portal might have some forgetting about what Eichenberg means to the defense. 

Yes, it feels like great news transfer Davison Igbinosun has settled in as a probable starter opposite a resurgent Denzel Burke and the interior defensive line appears stout behind a healthy Mike Hall Jr., Ty Hamilton, Tyleik Williams and recent transfer Tywone Malone. 

And yes, it's a good bet defensive end J.T. Tuimoloau is on the verge of a breakout season bolstered by improved consistency while counterpart Jack Sawyer could take a leap as he's now focused on just one position. 

The rest of the secondary should benefit from a more impactful defensive line not to mention having a full year of Knowles's system under their belt. Those two factors seem destined to help the Buckeyes limit the explosive plays that killed them in those two losses to end the season. 

But at the center of it all is Eichenberg, the steady, productive leader who sets the tone. If there was any doubt, just ask former teammate Ronnie Hickman, a safety who recorded 100 tackles of his own in 2021 before finishing fourth on the team last season. 

"(He's) probably the toughest guy I've ever stepped on the field with. You can ask anyone in that locker room, specifically on the defensive side. We look at Tommy, wherever Tommy goes or whatever he tells us to do, we do it. You need that on a defense, and you need that leadership, and Tommy brings that every day.”

With Eichenberg set to again quarterback the defense this fall, alongside some new and some improved pieces around him, the goal is to take the next step as a unit and return to Silver Bullet status.

That means becoming a feared defense that dictates the action, creates turnovers and shortens fields for the offense, and steps up on the biggest stages against the best opponents. 

It remains to be seen if this is finally the year Ohio State fans once again enjoy watching and elite defensive unit but with Eichenberg guiding the troops, there's reason to be bullish for the first time since 2019 about the defense's ceiling. 

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