Spring Forecast: Middle Linebacker
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — There are a number of holes to fill this spring for the Buckeyes, especially on defense. None of them is more evident than middle linebacker, where Ohio State is searching for a true leader to run the defense.
We take a closer look at the position after the first two days of practice, with a lot more action still to come this spring.
Who's Coming Back?
The one who guy who isn’t coming back is Zach Boren, and boy could they use another year of what he gave them last October and November. With Boren in the middle, the defense seemed to snap out of its funk late in the season. The Buckeyes actually finished second in the country in total defense in November, and while that wasn’t all Boren, he had a big hand in things.
Photo by Jim Davidson
The Buckeyes also lose senior Storm Klein, who didn’t play much last year after injuring his back, but Klein was the guy they went to initially to replace Curtis Grant. He’s the one at the forefront of everything the Buckeyes are hoping to do defensive this spring. They aren’t putting it all on Grant’s shoulders, but it would make things easier for everyone if he would just go ahead and become the player everyone expected two years ago.
Behind Grant, the Buckeyes also return a number of sophomore who could see time at Mike linebacker. Camren Williams is a polished youngster who has the natural instincts to play inside, but Josh Perry is a physical specimen who seems to play fast when he’s on the field.
Expectations Heading Into Spring
The expectations for Grant certainly aren’t as high as they were a year ago, but the group as a whole should be better off than it was heading into last season. There probably isn’t another Zach Boren on the roster if everything goes haywire this year, but having guys like Williams, Perry and Luke Roberts in their second year should give Fickell a few more options.
If nothing else, it creates better competition for Grant during spring ball and fall camp. He was basically handed the starting job last year because this team really didn’t have a middle linebacker in 2011 either.
We all know how that worked out for them, but it’s too early to completely lose hope that Grant can become the player many people hoped he would be coming out of high school. It’s going to have to happen soon for him, however, or one of these other guys is going to be out there next to Ryan Shazier in the fall.
Best Case Scenario
There is no better scenario for this football team than for Curtis Grant to grab a hold of the starting middle linebacker job this spring and never let go. It would be even better if Grant has to battle hard for months with guys like Perry and Williams before he finally establishes himself as “the guy” in the middle for the Buckeyes.
One way or another, the Buckeyes desperately need one of these guys to emerge during the offseason. It would be fine if it was Perry or Williams, but ideally Grant would be the guy to win the starting job because it would give the guys behind him another year to develop.
Grant supposedly has natural leadership ability and this team could use some of that at the middle linebacker spot. He has started working closely with Ryan Shazier, his roommate, so the defense’s on-field chemistry should only benefit from having Grant in the middle next to Shazier.
One to Watch For
Photo by Dan Harker
Grant is the obvious guy to keep an eye on this spring, and Perry would appear to be his most immediate challenger for the starting middle linebacker spot. That being said, keep an eye on sophomore Camren Williams this spring.
He isn’t a physical freak like Grant or Perry, but Williams is incredibly savvy for a sophomore. His dad, Brent Williams, played 11 seasons in the NFL with the Patriots, Seahawks and Jets, so Cam has the pedigree. He understands the game of football and he’s very mature for a kid heading into his second season in the program.
The real question is whether he has the natural instincts it takes to play middle linebacker at a place like Ohio State. If he does, don’t be surprised to see Williams shoot up the depth chart this spring, or possibly even in the fall.
Trending Up or Down
Right now, it’s simply not fair to categorize the middle linebacker position one way or the other, but it has definitely been trending down for a few years now at Ohio State. That doesn’t take anything away from what Boren did over the final five games of last season, but this school has too much history at the position to accept any stretch of mediocrity.
The Buckeyes have produced some true legends of the game over the years including Tom Cousineau, Chris Spielman, Pepper Johnson and Andy Katzenmoyer, but they also turned out some pretty good middle linebackers during Jim Tressel’s decade in Columbus.
It started with Matt Wilhelm back in 2002, but continued with guys like Anthony Schlegel and James Laurinaitis. Even Brian Rolle turned in two solid seasons as the starting Mike backer, but it has been in a state of flux ever since.
We outlined it earlier this spring in our breakdown of the position battle at middle linebacker, but nothing is more critical for the OSU defense this offseason than finding someone who can simply get the job done.
That’s what it’s about. We can talk about 40 times and bench presses and about guys who play fast and guys who have natural instincts, but the middle linebacker position is really about guys who produce.
This team needs a guy who is going to step in and get the job done, someone who is going to get them lined up right, who is going to be a voice of reason in times of chaos, and most importantly, someone who is going to lead by example.
The Mike linebacker at Ohio State should be held to a higher standard than “just don’t screw up.” This is a position that demands action. Whoever wins the job should be someone who can fly around, play fast, give 4-6 seconds of relentless effort and find himself around the football.
Anything less is simply not getting it done.
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