Do or Die Season for Grant
Former 5-Star LB Putting Complacency Behind Him
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Curtis Grant could only grit his teeth when talking about last season. The junior linebacker knows he let the opportunity of a lifetime slip through his fingers.
Photo by Dan Harker
“I got too complacent; that's the only thing I can say,” Grant said last Thursday after Ohio State's second practice of spring football.
“Couldn't handle the glory of being a starter, I guess. Should have kept working harder.”
A former five-star prospect, Grant came in with as much hype surrounding him as any linebacker to walk through the halls of the Woody Athletic Center since Andy Katzenmoyer.
He opened last season as the team’s starting middle linebacker, a chance to be the face of the new Buckeye defense in Urban Meyer’s first year at Ohio State. It was exactly the way he pictured it when he decided to leave Virginia so he could play for Luke Fickell in Columbus.
But Grant’s moment in the sun would be brief, if not unspectacular. He was quickly replaced by Storm Klein, a guy who missed all of fall camp, and eventually Zach Boren, the team’s three-year starter at fullback.
Photo by Dan Harker
“I was real mad. I didn't know what to do,” Grant said of losing his starting job just three games into last season.
“I would just sit back and watch and I wasn't used to that… It knocks your confidence down and your passion. You don’t know how to adjust.”
Grant had to watch as his replacement, a guy who was considered too small and too slow to play linebacker at an elite college level, helped the Buckeyes to an undefeated 12-0 season.
It was rewarding to be a part of something special like that in his second season, but Grant realizes now he has no one to blame but himself for the fact he wasn’t on the field for most of it.
“I got too complacent with my attitude,” he admitted.
“When you run with the ones, you take it as an honor. You get complacent and stop working as hard. Taking it for granted and taking the praise, you can get complacent.”
Asked about Grant this spring, Meyer said, “Do we still have hope? Absolutely.”
But the clock is ticking. Grant is already heading into his third season with the Buckeyes, and he’s back where he was exactly one year ago. Except this time he’s battling for a starting job he already had.
“That's where the maturity is showing. ‘Can he respond?’” Fickell said after practice on Thursday.
“If you sat with him and talked, that's probably what he didn't do a great job of last year. That's how you learn and how you grow. That's the joy of coaching is seeing guys move through things.”
Grant has gone through a lot in the last year. He’s more determined. He’s more mature. He has a better understanding of the defense, at least according to former teammate John Simon, but complacency can creep back in at a moment’s notice.
If it happens again, Grants knows it might be the last chance he gets.
“Your junior year, if you don't do anything, there's no guarantee you're going to have another year to do it,” he said.
“This is big, very big for me. I'm very determined.”
Determination. Hunger. Competitive fire. Will power. Those are all things that can’t be measured on paper. They can’t be broken down on film, and for the most part, they can’t be used in some type of formula to determine a player’s recruiting ranking.
At 6-3, 240 pounds, Grant had always been the star of his team. He had always been the best player on the field, too. He wasn’t just highly-rated (Rivals.com had him as the No. 2 overall player in the country) coming out of Hermitage High School because of his size. He produced, too.
As a senior, Grant totaled 134 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and six sacks and was named to the prestigious Parade All-America and USA Today all-USA teams. He was coveted by just about every program in the country, but there is a lot more to being a great linebacker than just being bigger, faster and stronger than the other guy.
“Everybody matures at different times,” Fickell said.
“It’s not a lack of ability. It’s confidence and the ability to let loose. A couple of years ago, Etienne Sabino couldn’t get on the field, either. Some guys take a little more time to understand the game of football and get confidence in what they’re doing and to play ball.”
One of the things that held Grant back last year was the fact he was practically handed the starting job at the start of spring practice. Forget that he had barely seen the field as a freshman the previous season, even when the Buckeyes were low on numbers because injuries.
With all his size and speed, Grant still looked slow. He was out of place, played far too rigid and seemed to be over-thinking every step. Assistant coach Mike Vrabel, a former NFL All-Pro, was working with the linebackers during Grant’s rookie season. He was especially hard on the youngster while trying to get the best out of him (keep in mind, it was Vrabel’s rookie season as a coach, too).
That method didn’t work very well with the young linebacker.
“Nine times out of 10 coming out of high school, you're usually the man,” Grant said.
“So you don't get yelled at as much and you get away with a lot of stuff. But nothing goes unnoticed here.”
Even what happens away from the practice facility. Grant said he has stopped “partying” and going out since he moved in with classmate Ryan Shazier. The two spend most of their time watching film or working out when they’re not at practice.
That was something both linebackers picked up early on from their time with former OSU captain John Simon, who was challenged by Meyer and the new coaching staff to start bringing the young guys along when he came in for early-morning workouts.
“I took Curtis under my wing for a long time, training with him until he matured and did it on his own. Ryan Shazier too, and they’re doing great things,” Simon said during Ohio State’s Pro Day last week.
“I expect big things out of Curtis this year. He’s a tremendous player. I think he’s got the defense down and I look forward to watching him play because he’s fun to watch.”
Simon also believes Grant has the type of leadership skills it takes to be the starting middle linebacker at Ohio State, but they aren’t going to hand it to him this time around. Fellow sophomore Joshua Perry is also getting first-team reps at Mike linebacker this spring, while Camren Williams and Luke Roberts are also in the mix.
None of them quite as intriguing, though, as Grant.
“I want it for him every bit as much as he wants it. He’s a great person. He will make us a 10 times better football team because of his passion and energy,” Fickell said.
“As much as we want it to, as much as he wants it to, as much as we push him to do it, sometimes good things come to those who continue to battle through.
“It's always about where you end, not where you start.”
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