What happened to the linebackers?

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Last updated: 10/18/2011 7:10 PM

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Football
What Happened to the Linebackers?
By Brandon Castel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Give Ohio State’s defense credit, it showed up in a big way Saturday at Illinois.

Just one week after their epic fourth-quarter collapse at Nebraska, the Buckeyes held the previously-unbeaten Fighting Illini to 27 points below their season-average.

Part of the credit should go to Mother Nature, but John Simon and Johnathan Hankins had their way with the Illinois offensive line. Their play—and that of the defensive front—helped mask some of the issues Ohio State has had at linebacker this season.

So what has happened to the linebackers in just one short year?

Issues with Key Players

Andrew Sweat
Photo by Dan Harker
Andrew Sweat

42 ANDREW SWEAT (6-2, 238, rSr.) — Sweat has easily been Ohio State’s best linebacker this season and one of their best players on the defensive side of the ball. He was banged up for a few weeks after the knee injury he suffered during the Miami (Fla.) game, but Sweat leads the team with 49 tackles, 13 more than anyone else on the defense. He isn’t on the same level as an A.J. Hawk or James Laurinaitis and never will be, but he is doing a nice job replacing what Ross Homan brought to the Will linebacker spot.

6 ETIENNE SABINO (6-3, 242, rJr.) — This was supposed to be the breakout year for Sabino after he took a voluntary redshirt last season in order to learn the defense. He has played a lot of snaps and is third on the team with 35 tackles, but it has not been a great showing from the Florida native so far. His primary role has been the Mike (middle) linebacker spot in the nickel defense, and Sabino has looked good when he’s attacking.

The problem is, he still looks frozen when asked to do anything else. The staff has been hoping he would become more instinctual with a better understanding of the defense, but we have yet to see that. His first move is always backward, which is not what they want from a middle linebacker. He is hesitant and still looks so afraid to make a mistake that he ends up getting to the play late or taking a bad angle to make up for the lost time. He has a hard time getting off blocks and that has been a big problem for the Buckeyes. They don’t have many options, so they are hoping the light will finally come on for Sabino now that he is halfway through his first season as a starter.

32 STORM KLEIN (6-2, 240, Jr.) — It has been hard to get a true gauge on Klein this year because the Buckeyes haven’t been in a lot of base 4-3 defense. They have run a lot of nickel, some 4-2-5 and some 3-3-5, and Klein has been splitting time with Sabino in the middle. He is eighth on the team with 22 tackles and also has a couple big turnovers, including a forced fumble and fumble recovery Saturday at Illinois. There was a noticeable drop-off when he had to come out of the Nebraska game with an injury, but Klein is more of a throwback middle linebacker for the Buckeyes. He is strong and much better at getting off blocks than Sabino, but he doesn’t have the foot-speed OSU had in the middle with Laurinaitis and Brian Rolle. He is more of an Anthony Schlegel type, but he doesn’t have Hawk and Bobby Carpenter flanking him.

26 TYLER MOELLER (6-0, 210, rSr.) — We will include Moeller on this list because he has played a lot of linebacker as of late. The sixth-year senior turned in a solid performance against Illinois, recording five tackles and forcing a key fumble on quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. He is seventh on the team with 23 tackles despite the fact the defensive staff has been forced to use him in a lot of different situations—many of them not exactly suited for his strengths as a football player. Moeller has been lined up against receivers in the slot and he has had to take on 250-pound fullbacks out of the backfield. He has played well over the last few weeks considering what they have asked him to do, but it’s still not his forte. He is best on the attack and it seems like he has gotten worn down in the fourth quarter of some games, particularly Nebraska.

10 RYAN SHAZIER (6-2, 212, Fr.) — Shazier is the one player everyone is wanting more of this year. His natural speed and powerful hitting make him stand out every time he gets on the field. He already has 14 tackles, 3.5 TFL and a sack this fall in limited duty. He has been a monster on special teams and it’s clear the Buckeyes are grooming him to be the next Will linebacker when Sweat leaves. He should continue to get more playing time, but Shazier is still learning to be a linebacker. He played defensive end in high school and linebackers coach Mike Vrabel said he still isn’t great at getting off blocks once he is engaged.

Unpredicted Defections

Dorian Bell
Photo by Jim Davidson
Dorian Bell

DORIAN BELL (Duquesne) — This one probably hurt the most. Bell was a 5-star prospect out of Monroeville, Pa., who was expected to be a future All-American at Ohio State. Maybe that says a lot about expectations, because Bell never seemed to have his head on straight. That starts with the concussions he got last season, but Bell was also suspended for the entire 2011 season for violating team rules. Had he stuck around, he still would not be able to help the Buckeyes this fall. He may not have been able to help them until the middle of next season, which is why he decided to transfer to Duquesne University.

JONATHAN NEWSOME (Ball State)  — Newsome is another guy who could have helped them on special teams this year and possibly on defense. He started one game at Sam linebacker last fall, and that is probably the only spot he could have played for the Buckeyes. He had some speed and some quickness, which could have helped the defense, but he was another guy who never played as good on Saturday’s as he looked in his uniform.

EJUAN PRICE (Pittsburgh) —  A member of the class of 2011, Price jumped ship on the Buckeyes just before report date. He opted to sign with Pittsburgh instead, and he has 22 tackles and 4.5 tackles-for-loss in seven games as freshman for the Panthers. There is no way to tell if Price could have made a similar contribution at Ohio State, but he would have at least added depth.

Costly Injuries

38 SCOTT McVEY (6-0, 225, rFr.) — Basically Ohio State’s only linebacker in the class of 2010, McVey has never been healthy since getting to Columbus. The St. Ignatius product was supposed to be another Tyler Moeller type, but he has battled a number of injuries over the last two seasons. It has been a rarity for him to even dress for a game, let alone play. It’s too early to write him off, but McVey is in real danger of becoming a medical hardship down the road if he can’t get healthy.

36 CONNOR CROWELL (6-1, 220, Fr.) — Long before he ever played a down for the Buckeyes, they knew they would be without Crowell in 2011. He suffered a nasty injury during his senior year of high school and is taking a redshirt this season.

Disappointing Contributions

39 JORDAN WHITING (6-1, 238, rSo.) — After serving a one-game suspension to start the season, Whiting returned for the Toledo game in week two but he has seen very little to no playing time on the defense. He is has been out there on a number of special teams, but right now he does not give them a better option at middle linebacker than Klein or Sabino. That says a lot about Whiting, who was a 4-star prospect out of Louisville in the class of 2009. He doesn’t figure to be a factor on defense any time soon.

Curtis Grant
Photo by Jim Davidson
Curtis Grant

14 CURTIS GRANT (6-3, 225, Fr.) — It is hardly fair to call Curtis Grant a disappointment considering the fact he has only been on campus for a few months. Not many linebackers have come in and contributed right away for the Buckeyes, especially on defense, but Grant was supposed to be that kind of player. He was a 5-star prospect in high school and some rated him as the No. 1 linebacker in the country. He is big and strong and little stiff, but the main thing right now is his understanding of the defense. Vrabel is working hard to make sure Grant is not another Sabino, who didn’t really see the field until his fourth year in the program.  

Missed Targets

One thing that should not be forgotten is the fact Ohio State has missed on some big linebacker prospects in the state of Ohio over the last few years.

In 2010, the Buckeyes missed on 5-star linebacker Jordan Hicks. The Lakota West product opted to sign with Texas instead and now he is a starting linebacker for the Longhorns as a sophomore. He is fifth on the team with 31 tackles through sixth games.

Ohio State also missed on 4-star linebacker Trey DePriest in the class of 2011 when the Springfield product signed with Alabama. He isn’t starting for the Crimson Tide as a freshman, but is sixth on the team with 20 tackles through seven games.

Let us also not forget about Jamel Turner. The 4-star prospect out of Youngstown Ursuline signed with the Buckeyes in 2010 before suffering a gunshot wound in April.

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