2012 Buckeye Rewind - Linebackers
By Tony Gerdeman
COLUMBUS, Ohio — It is going to be impossible to look back on Ohio State's 2012 undefeated season and not immediately think about the year that the linebackers had.
The Buckeyes lost a captain to a broken leg, started three different middle linebackers, missed tackles for an entire first half of the year, had to rely on a true freshman at times, and then had to play a bunch of nickel, but by the time the season had ended, they had the best run defense in the entire conference.
It was a remarkable year in many respects for the 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes, but what the linebackers went through and ultimately accomplished will be remembered for a very long time.
Expectations Coming Into The Season
Before spring football even started, Urban Meyer provided some epic foreshadowing when he talked about sophomore middle linebacker Curtis Grant.
Photo by Dan Harker
"He had an excellent offseason, so he's a guy that has to develop," he said. "We have no choice. He has to be a player for us. If he's not, we've got problems."
The time was supposed to be now for Grant. He was going to slide in seamlessly between Ryan Shazier and Etienne Sabino and produce like Ohio State middle linebackers were supposed to.
Sabino, meanwhile, would be entering his fifth year in the program, and after being named a captain, it was hoped that he would have his best year ever.
Following the way Shazier wrapped up his freshman season, expectations grew quickly for what he might do in 2012. Given his speed, nose for the football, and simply his ability to make plays, there was no telling what Shazier would be able to accomplish in 2012.
In a desperate need to build depth, Meyer also signed five linebackers in the 2012 recruiting class, hoping that at least a couple of them would perform well enough to find their names on the two-deep.
How the Season Played Out
Curtis Grant started the first three games of the season for the Buckeyes, notching seven total tackles in the process. He was then benched in favor of Storm Klein, who had only been reinstated to the team one week prior to the season opener.
Klein would go on to start the next five games at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes, averaging just over three tackles per game. Both Klein and Grant gave what they had, but struggled mightily at times, exposing a glaring weakness that Meyer was worried about all the way back before the spring.
Photo by Dan Harker
Shazier, meanwhile played an okay first half of the season, but he too missed a lot of tackles. Despite leading the team in tackles in four of the Buckeyes' first six games, Shazier wasn't playing as well as he was capable.
Sabino, however, was having his best season as a Buckeye, averaging over seven tackles per game through the first five games. Unfortunately, Sabino broke his leg early in the game against Nebraska and missed the next four weeks.
Then, a few days later at a Tuesday practice prior to the Indiana game, with five linebackers sidelined with various injuries, fullback Zach Boren was asked to move over to defense, which he did without a single hesitation.
In his first game as an Ohio State linebacker, Boren led the team with eight tackles against the Hoosiers. He wasn't very polished, but the former high school linebacker still had his defensive instincts, even if they weren't yet firing like they would be at the end the season.
Klein continued to start for Boren, but Boren got the bulk of the snaps. He then moved into the starting lineup for the final four games of the season, and had to play even more snaps than normal as Klein missed three of the last four games of the season due to injury.
Photo by Dan Harker
Once Boren was moved to linebacker, the defense became a much more solid unit. Yes, they gave up a ton of points to the Hoosiers, but that was just his first game out.
While Boren was getting his sea legs, Ryan Shazier started to become one of the most disruptive forces in college football. Shazier had 58 tackles over his first six games and 57 over his final six games, but those final 57 tackles came much closer to the line of scrimmage than his first 58.
In fact, 12.5 of his 17 tackles for loss came in the final six games of the year. He made play after play for the Buckeyes, most notably a pick six against Penn State, and the forced fumble at the goal line against Wisconsin when he met Montee Ball in midair.
Boren ended up finishing with 49 tackles in six games as a linebacker, which was five more tackles than "All-Everything" Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o had in his final six regular season games.
What Should We Expect in 2013
If Ohio State has to rely on a fullback to play middle linebacker again, don't expect them to get away with it for a second time.
Ryan Shazier will start the season as a preseason All-American candidate, and will be the smart money for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He will be expected to pick up right where he left off this past season, but that is going to be a bit more difficult given the fact that Ohio State will be breaking in an entirely new starting defensive line.
While Shazier will lock up the weakside linebacker spot, the Buckeyes will need to find a middle linebacker and a strongside linebacker.
Photo by Jim Davidson
Joshua Perry got the most quality action for the Buckeyes among the freshmen, playing during Sabino's injury on the strongside, so he would figure to get the first look at the strongside moving forward. Fellow freshman Camren Williams was a backup at middle linebacker this past season, and he may be the most likely candidate to win the job in the middle next year.
There are many OSU fans who are hoping or expecting incoming freshman Mike Mitchell to win the middle linebacker job. It's hard to expect a freshman to step right in and start, just look at last season for evidence of that.
A lot will shake out over the next eight months. As I say every year, never forget that James Laurinaitis wasn't a middle linebacker until August of 2006. The spring will give us an idea, but it will only be an idea.
The two best things about the group of 2013 linebackers is that Ryan Shazier is now an outstanding player, and that there are more options for Luke Fickell this coming season. Urban Meyer has brought in a bunch of talent in these last two recruiting classes, and it's time to start getting more out of the rising sophomores.
However, the same worries that Meyer had last year at middle linebacker exist again. There's also going to be worry about the strongside. Last year, the Buckeyes had to play a lot of nickel simply because the linebackers couldn't get on the field. In 2013, those linebackers need to earn some real playing time, and not just on special teams.
They'll have to do it behind an inexperienced defensive line. It is not going to be an ideal season next year for the Buckeye front seven, and there will be some growing pains, but as long as the linebackers improve throughout the course of the season like they did last year, things should work out pretty well.
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