Replacing Boren First Order of Business This Spring
By Brandon Castel
Photo by Jim Davidson
COLUMBUS, Ohio — What Urban Meyer would give for another year of Zach Boren.
Ohio State’s head coach might regret it in a few years, but right now he would probably trade a couple of those incoming blue-chippers for some senior leadership in the middle of his defense.
The Buckeyes return quarterback Braxton Miller and a host of options on the offensive side of the ball, but the defense will be a major question mark when Ohio State opens spring camp this afternoon.
Second-year defensive coordinator Luke Fickell must replace all four starters from a defensive line that was the strength of his unit during Ohio State’s undefeated season a year ago.
Fickell will also have to find replacements for Boren – who made the move from fullback to Mike linebacker halfway through his senior season – and fellow senior Etienne Sabino at the linebacker position, which is certainly not as developed as the defensive line.
“Linebacker is a problem,” Meyer proclaimed last week during the Buckeye Cruise for Cancer.
“Mike linebacker is a problem. I can’t tell you who it’s going to be.”
That is a strong statement from the head coach only days before he was going to open spring practice under the pressure of being a legitimate front-runner in college football this season.
The Buckeyes will be among the top two or three teams in most preseason polls, and they will be the clear-cut favorite to win the Big Ten before the season. They averaged over 37 points per game last season and it could be even higher this year, but Meyer doesn’t want to rely solely on his offense to win games.
That’s why he went out and recruited 15 players on defense in a class of 24 for 2013, but most of those guys won’t be on campus until the summer. Cornerbacks Eli Apple and Cam Burrows have a chance to jump in and compete this spring, as do defensive ends Tracy Sprinkle and Tyquan Lewis, but Meyer will have to wait until fall to see his new linebackers.
“We have two freshmen I’m so excited about in Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell. They’re freaks,” Meyer said with a smile.
“Love freaks. I wish they were here. They’re not here until summer.”
Photo by Dan Harker
Without them, the Buckeyes have to find two guys to play alongside Ryan Shazier, a junior out of Florida who should be one of the better linebackers in the Big Ten this season.
“It'll be a big spring,” said Fickell, a Columbus native who began coaching the linebackers at Ohio State under Jim Tressel back in 2004.
“I think with that whole group, it'll be an exciting time. I know that I'm excited.”
Finding that next great player is one of the things coaches like Fickell live for. We can remember when he discovered James Laurinaitis as a sophomore in the spring of 2006, or when he made the interesting decision to go with an undersized Brian Rolle as the replacement for Laurinaitis at Mike linebacker before the 2009 season.
It was a move that worked out perfectly, both for Rolle and for the Buckeyes. He finished with 170 tackles in two years as a starter before he was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in the 2011 draft.
Since then, middle linebacker has been mostly an adventure for the Buckeyes. First they tried Etienne Sabino, then Storm Klein. Andrew Sweat even played the position for one game against Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
They thought Curtis Grant was going to be the answer last season, but eventually they were forced to go back to Klein when Grant showed he wasn’t ready. They even gave freshman Camren Williams a brief look before Meyer stumbled upon a former high school linebacker who was lining up on the other side of the ball.
“Zach Boren made Ryan Shazier a better football player,” said Fickell, who served as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator last year after one season as interim head coach.
“Because then Ryan didn't have to worry about who was next to him.”
It was nice while it lasted, but the 2013 Buckeyes open spring practice today without much of clue as to who they will go to as the replacement for Boren, a senior who made 50 tackles in six starters after moving over from fullback last season.
“Curtis Grant is a candidate. Cam Williams is a candidate,” Meyer said, “Josh Perry is a guy, you can move him inside or outside.”
Perry is probably the front-runner to replace Sabino as the starting Sam linebacker this spring on the outside, but they may give him a look inside as well. At 6-4, 235, he certainly has the prototypical size to be a Mike backer, but so does Curtis Grant.
Heading into his third season in Columbus, the former five-star prospect has yet to put it all together out there at middle linebacker. This might be his last real chance to win the starting inside linebacker spot, but the Buckeyes are ready to give up on him just yet.
“He’s got a chance,” Meyer said of the 6-3, 235-pound junior out of Virginia.
“It’s not lack of try. He’s not pushing back. He just has to get better, but he has some talent.”
A lot of talent, if the recruiting analysts were anywhere close to the mark.
Grant totaled 134 tackles, 15 tackles-for-loss and six sacks as a senior at Hermitage High School two years ago. He was named to the Parade All-America and USA Today all-USA teams and was the leading-tackler for the East squad in the 2011 U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Meyer has made it his personal challenge to Fickell and the defensive staff to find out if any of that will ever translate to the college level, but they aren’t going to lose hope about the 2013 defense if he doesn’t pan out.
“It doesn't matter which guy is the guy in the middle helping everyone out as long as there is one,” Fickell added.
“That's why they call us coaches. And that's why we have spring ball.”
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