Breaking Down the Linebackers
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It is going to be a season unlike many other in Ohio State history this fall, but one position in particular could face more transformation than any other.
With co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell taking over as the interim coach following the resignation of Jim Tressel, he will have some interesting decision to make about the linebacker position.
The first on will be his decision on who will coach the linebackers. With Fickell moving up, the Buckeyes currently have an opening for a defensive assistant under Jim Heacock. Fickell has coached the linebackers at Ohio State since 2004, and a university spokesperson told the-Ozone there is “no timing yet as to when the position will be filled or by whom.”
Whoever it is will have the task of replacing to talented linebackers from last season’s defense.
Key Losses: Ross Homan (72 tkls, 2 tfl, 1 sk, 1int), Brian Rolle (76 tkls, 11.5 tfl, 2.5 sks, 2 int)
The Buckeyes aren’t exactly losing A.J. Hawk or James Laurinaitis from the 2010 defense, but they got tremendous production out of Homan and Rolle the last two seasons. They combined for nearly 150 tackles last season despite the fact Homan missed two and a half games with an injury.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Staying healthy was the biggest problem for Homan during his time at Ohio State, but when he was on the field he was a playmaker. He never quite blossomed into “the next great Buckeye linebacker” that everyone expected he might, but Homan had a steady career in Columbus before he was selected in the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings.
That was the same round where the Philadelphia Eagles selected Rolle, a tweener who could play linebacker or even some safety at the next level. He isn’t really big enough even for outside linebacker in the NFL, but then again, not many people would have ever thought he was big enough to play middle linebacker at Ohio State.
Top Returners: Andrew Sweat (41 tkls, 3 tfl, 1 int)
With the departures of Homan and Rolle, the Buckeyes will lean heavily on the experience of senior Andrew Sweat at the linebacker position. The Washington, Pa. native made 41 tackles as the third starting linebacker last season, but most of that came at the Sam (strongside) linebacker spot.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Sweat is much more natural at the Will (weakside) linebacker spot, but he only got a chance to play there when Homan was injured last year. Now he will slide over to Will on a fulltime basis in 2011 and the results could be promising.
The Buckeyes need him to play well and produce at a high level this season and the good news is that his level of play spiked dramatically when he was playing at Will last season compared to Sam. Part of that may have been the consistency that comes with the Will spot.
Making a Push: Etienne Sabino (Redshirt), Storm Klein (18 tkls, 1 tfl, 1 int)
Nobody had a more up and down year in 2010 than Sabino, and that was without even seeing the field. The Miami native started and ended the spring as the top candidate to replace Austin Spitler at the Sam linebacker spot, but the return of Sweat in the fall sent him back to the bench.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Because of his age and inexperience for a junior, Sabino made a joint decision with the coaching staff to take a redshirt for the 2010 season. There were a handful of times throughout the year where it looked like he might have to step on the field, thereby forfeiting his redshirt, but it never happened. He spent the whole year watching his team from the sidelines in hopes it would make him a better player in 2011.
If spring was any indication for Sabino, he made the right choice. Things finally seemed to click into place for the former blue-chip prospect, who slid inside to take Rolle’s spot at middle linebacker during spring practice. He has always had the physical presence to play the position, but his head seems to have caught up and it’s allowing him to play more true to his actual speed.
It is still possible that Sabino could be pushed my Storm Klein when he returns in the fall the way he was by Sweat a year ago. Klein missed most of spring practice with a nagging hamstring injury, but even before that, he had slid behind Sabino onto the second team. The suspension of Dorian Bell, however, makes Sabino and Klein the two most experienced and game-ready linebackers on the team aside from Sweat.
Outside Looking in: Dorian Bell (9 tkls), Jordan Whiting (2 tkls), Jonathan Newsome (15 tkls), Tony Jackson (9 tkls)
With the news of his year-long suspension, Bell went from pushing for a starting spot in the fall to completely irrelevant, at least for now.
A former 5-star prospect out of Gateway High School in Monroeville, Pa., Bell was probably Ohio State’s top special teams performer last season. He only played in eight games because of concussion problems, but it looked like he was ready to take the next step in his career.
Instead, Bell will sit for the entire season. Considering he redshirt as a freshman in 2009, that means after three years in the program, Bell will have played a grand total of eight games. Not exactly what is expected of a blue-chip prospect.
His loss could be a gain for players like Jordan Whiting and Jonathan Newsome, two classmates of Bell. Whiting looked very good in the spring backing up Sabino inside while Klein was out, but he must sit the first game of the season for accepting free/discounted tattoos.
Newsome is also a player with tremendous upside—he even started one game for the Buckeyes last season—but he has his own demons to deal with. The junior out of Glenville hardly played in the spring because he was in Jim Tressel’s doghouse.
Tressel is gone now, so it will be interesting to see whether Luke Fickell’s doghouse is nearly as big.
Spring Newcomers: Ryan Shazier (Plantation, Fla.)
With injuries and off the field issues mucking up the linebacker spot in the spring, one pleasant surprise was the play of true freshman Ryan Shazier. The Florida native committed to Ohio State after Urban Meyer announced his decision to step down at Florida, and it looks like the Buckeyes made a nice grab to get him with the help of high school teammate Jeremy Cash.
Shazier is fast and could play a number of positions on the OSU defense, including Leo and Sam linebacker. He battled a few minor injury problems during the spring as well, but played extremely well in the spring game.
Because he is a more natural fit for the Sam linebacker spot, Shazier could be the guy from the class of 2011 who plays his way on to the field this fall. Being in Columbus for spring practice certainly didn’t hurt.
Headed this Way: Curtis Grant (Richmond, Va.), Conner Crowell (Waldorf, Md.), Ejuan Price (Pittsburgh)
If anyone is going to swoop in out of nowhere and grab some playing time as a true freshman it is Curtis Grant. One of the top linebacker prospects in the country, Grant will enroll at Ohio State in June with the idea of contributing right away for the Buckeyes.
He is big and fast with natural instincts and reminds some of Sabino at a young age. Sabino didn’t play right away on defense, so Grant could end up taking a redshirt in 2011 if they want to prolong his clock from starting. He is better fitted to play the Will linebacker spot than anyone else in the class (and probably anyone on the team outside of Sweat and Bell), but could also slide inside and play middle.
That might be a little less likely considering Price is best suited to play the Mike linebacker spot.
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