Final Post-Spring Overview — The Linebackers
By Tony Gerdeman
Few schools can match the linebacker history of Ohio State, and with that past, it has also brought along with it a certain level of expectation at the position.
Last year, however, those expectations were far from met. In fact, the tackling was some of the worst that has ever been seen in Columbus.
Photo by Jim Davidson
It got so bad that freshman linebacker Ryan Shazier was called upon, which is a drastic measure at a place like Ohio State. However, Shazier responded and despite starting just three games, he finished sixth on the team in tackles with 57 tackles.
It was the best performance by a freshman Buckeye linebacker in over a decade. As further proof of the linebacker struggles at Ohio State last season, Shazier's three sacks were the same as starting linebackers Storm Klein, Andrew Sweat, Tyler Moeller and Etienne Sabino combined.
Clearly, things need to improve in 2012, and Shazier is one of the ways that that will happen.
It is a thin group of linebackers that were on campus for the Spring. Shazier, Sabino and Klein are the only returnees with experience, and sophomore Curtis Grant never had a meaningful snap from scrimmage last year.
Photo by Dan Harker
While there is confidence in Shazier, the rest of the linebackers have enough question marks to fill an interrogation. Sabino is a fifth-year player who has yet to really make his mark on the program. Klein played too heavy last year, and has battled injuries.
Grant, while a highly-decorated high school player, was behind the curve the entire length of the 2011 season. That didn't stop Urban Meyer from putting pressure on him right at the outset of Spring football, however, or maybe that was the reason he did it.
Redshirt freshman Conner Crowell and true freshmen Luke Roberts and Joshua Perry were also on hand to provide depth.
There really are no concerns with Shazier, who is everything that a coach looks for in a playmaker. There were times last year when the Buckeyes needed a pass rusher, and they put the barely 200-pound Shazier on the edge and told him to get after the quarterback.
This year, Shazier will be under more control, but in a good way. He is more experienced and will be able to do more, and do it better.
Every returning player will be a year better and even though they will be switching position coaches from Mike Vrabel to Luke Fickell, it's not an overwhelming change. Also, the system remains the same, so the players should be comfortable in what they are asked to do.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Still, there needs to be clear improvements. Storm Klein was a step slow last year, which led to a lot of missed tackles. Dropping weight will be a good thing for him. Etienne Sabino needs to become the playmaker that his speed and size say he can be. It's hard to expect too much advancement here because both linebackers are veterans and, seemingly, they are who they are.
Curtis Grant is the wildcard. Eventually he is expected to become something, but can he unseat the incumbent in the middle?
The first big news of the Spring was that Grant was now in front of Klein, and after seeing him perform throughout practices, he wasn't out of place lining up in the middle for the Buckeyes. He made tackles near the line of scrimmage, rather than dragging ball carriers down seven yards past it.
Even in nickel packages, Grant stayed on the field, which is an indicator of how far he has come mentally, which was the main problem for him last year.
There's nothing to recalibrate when it comes to Shazier, because he performed as expected this Spring. Sabino, as he has in the past, had a productive offseason. He still needs to manifest those offseasons into on-field production. He did make a ton of plays this Spring, so that could be an indication of things to come.
Klein wasn't able to participate this Spring due to injury, so it's hard to say whether he would provide much competition to Grant right now. One thing is sure, however, as a starter he will not give his spot up easily come Fall camp.
With Klein's injury, a new named emerged in the middle in redshirt freshman Conner Crowell. Crowell spent all of last season recovering from a high school ankle injury, and performed very well this Spring, even when he was pressed into first-team duty because of Grant's minor shoulder injury.
With an anchor like Shazier, and the best defensive line in the conference, things should be much better at linebacker for the Buckeyes in 2012.
However, the depth behind starters Shazier, Grant and Sabino will consist of Klein and six freshmen. Granted, those seven players are talented, but that is a tremendous amount of youth that will be relied upon this coming season.
The depth will have to be able to give the starters a break here and there so that they aren't wearing down late in the season.
There is also the question of how often the Buckeyes will even be playing three linebackers. Combating the spread offense doesn't always lend itself to playing three linebackers, though Ohio State will be determined to do it as much as they possibly can.
Overall, as long as Sabino and Grant take their strong April into the regular season, this could be a unit of strength for the Buckeyes.
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