Faith Helps Grant Find Footing at Ohio State
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — When Curtis Grant walks into a room, all eyes flash toward Ohio State’s second-year linebacker.
It’s an involuntary motion.
Photo by Dan Harker
Even if it is only a glance, Grant’s broad shoulders and lean-yet-sculpted frame stands out from the crowd—even when that crowd is a group of fellow Division I football players at a powerhouse program like Ohio State.
The Buckeyes have some impressive-looking football players on their roster—especially after an off-season in the weight room with Mickey Marotti.
Grant doesn’t have the profile of a body-builder like senior John Simon—considered one of the true physical freaks in college football—but at 6-3, 235-pounds, Grant looks like something whittled by the football gods themselves.
He was born to play middle linebacker.
“The game was so natural to me,” Grant said, “it’s just something I’ve done since I was knee-high to grass.”
Only it didn’t come natural to Grant as a freshman at Ohio State last season. In his first year of college ball, Grant struggled, for the first time in his life. The 5-star prospect out of Richmond, Va. barely saw the field, despite the fact his new team was pushed to the brink of desperation at the linebacker position in 2011.
“There’s a point where your mind has 1,000 things running across it,” said Grant, who was rated as the No. 1 linebacker prospect in the country by most recruiting services last year.
“You don’t know what to do or who’s on your side.”
It was hard for interim head coach Luke Fickell to be on Grant’s side as a rookie, at least when it came to playing time. Same with then-linebackers coach Mike Vrabel, who was just trying to learn the ropes of coaching while adjusting to life after the NFL.
Grant didn’t look like the player who had every defensive coordinator in the country salivating during his senior season at Hermitage High School. He added 20 pounds to his frame, thinking it would help him take on ball-carriers like Montee Ball in the grueling Big Ten Conference.
He could feel the difference immediately, but it did not have the effect he was looking for.
Grant felt slower.
He played slower.
The extra weight, coupled with his indecisiveness, nearly paralyzed him on the field. Instead of the player who made 134 tackles as a Parade All-American in high school, Grant was a statue.
His first-year total: 2 tackles.
That’s it. No sacks, no tackles for loss. He did recover a blocked punt on the 1-yard line that led to a touchdown from Jordan Hall, but that was the extent of Grant’s playing time. He did not see the field for a meaningful snap on defense, even when the Buckeyes lost veterans Storm Klein and Andrew Sweat to injuries.
“Not playing was kind of depressing,” he said.
“I got to a low point where it was like I didn’t want to play anymore.”
Not play, as in walk away from the game he has loved since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. That was something Grant contemplated last season. With all the turmoil going on around him inside the program, he didn’t know where to turn.
His position coach, a 14-year NFL veteran, was learning on the job. Vrabel tried to get the best out of Grant by staying on him in practice, but all the yelling only put more stress on the freshman to perform in front of his teammates.
“He overanalyzed everything a year ago,” coach Urban Meyer said early in spring camp.
“He didn’t play very fast. He was — I don’t want to say depressed — but he wasn’t enjoying football.”
So he went back to the two things he has always known to stand firm in times of trouble and tribulation.
“I started talking to my parents and family,” Grant says.
“A lot more and just reading the Bible knowing it was going to work out OK.”
Grant’s classmate, Ryan Shazier, became a burgeoning star late in the 2011 season — starting with his 15-tackle performance against Penn State — but the linebacker position was in a state of flux when Meyer took over the team in January, after the loss to Florida, especially in the middle, where the Buckeyes were unable to replace Brian Rolle last season.
“We have no choice, he has to be a player for us, ” Meyer said of Grant just before the start of spring ball.
“If he’s not, we’ve got problems.”
As in the same type of problems they had a year ago when both Klein and Etienne Sabino proved incapable of playing the middle linebacker spot with the kind of effectiveness this program expects.
Sabino, it turns out, was a better fit for the strongside outside linebacker spot, which left the door open for Grant in the spring. Last year, he wouldn’t have gotten through it before it slammed in his face.
Things were different this time around.
“I look back at a year ago and just smile and laugh about it,” Grant said last Thursday.
“With the family support and what God has done for me, it’s just unreal.”
He lost 20 pounds this offseason, back down to the 235-pound size he probably should have been at a year ago. That allowed him to play faster this spring. So did the fact he was encouraged by his coaches to stop thinking and just start playing.
“Coach Meyer and all my coaches and teammates and the strength staff has been great motivation to keep getting better every day,” Grant said.
Before missing the final week of camp with a pinched nerve (stinger), Grant had taken nearly every snap as the first-team middle linebacker in the spring. Part of it was the knee injury to Klein, a senior from Newark, but a bigger part of it was Grant, who seems to have turned the corner in his second year.
“You go from being down and don’t know if you’re going to play anymore to, ‘Let’s go,’ ” he said.
“Let’s go do what you’ve got to do.”
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