Spring Position Battles to Watch: Inside Linebacker
By Brandon Castel
COLUMBUS, Ohio — For the second straight year Urban Meyer and his coaching staff will enter spring without a real understanding of who will be their middle linebacker.
A year ago, Meyer and defensive coordinator Luke Fickell seemed confident it was going to be Curtis Grant, a former 5-star prospect who already looked like an NFL linebacker by the time he got to Ohio State.
He looked pretty good early in spring camp, and Meyer went as far as to say he “has to be a player for us. If he's not, we've got problems.” Grant missed the end of spring ball with a pinched nerve, but that was the least of his problems.
The No. 2 overall player in the Rivals.com class of 2011 opened the 2012 season as Ohio State’s starting Mike backer, but he never looked comfortable out there. He played stiff and rigid and seemed to react instead of attack.
Eventually, the Buckeyes had to go another direction. They went with senior Storm Klein for a while, but he was limited by a bulging disc in his back. Without a true leader in the middle, the OSU defense struggled for the first two months of the season. It wasn’t until Meyer decided to give Zach Boren a look on defense that things finally came together for the Buckeyes.
Unfortunately for Meyer and Fickell, Boren was a one-year solution to a major problem that continues to haunt the Buckeyes heading into Meyer’s second spring practice at Ohio State.
MIKE LINEBACKER (INSIDE)
Shoes to Fill: Zach Boren
Who would have thought the biggest shoes to fill, possibly on the entire defense, would be a guy who started the year on offense. Boren, a former high school linebacker at Pickerington Central, flipped over to defense during practice on the Tuesday before the Indiana game.
He was a little rusty in Ohio State’s 52-49 win over the Hoosiers in Bloomington, but Boren eventually solidified things in the middle and his leadership was a calming presence for youngsters like Ryan Shazier.
Boren finished the year with 50 tackles in six games. He was one of the better players on the field in the month of November and it’s almost too bad he doesn’t have another year at OSU to really grow into the Mike linebacker position.
The Favorite: Curtis Grant (6-3, 225, Jr.)
At 6-3, 225 pounds, Grant continues to intrigue Fickell and the OSU coaching staff. He was a Parade All-America and the leading-tackler for the East in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl.
Meyer seems to believe there is something just beneath the surface with this kid, and he has personally challenged Fickell to do everything in his power to uncover it. There was talk of moving Grant to either defensive end or outside linebacker, which is where he finished last season, but they are going to give him one more shot in the middle.
That’s why we’re calling Grant the favorite in this position battle heading into spring practice. If they are going to give him another shot at middle linebacker, it’s going to be a legitimate one. They want to see if he is going to be their solution to a huge problem right now, but the clock is ticking.
Grant is already heading into his junior season at Ohio State. Unless he takes a redshirt this season ala Etienne Sabino, he has two years left to make something of himself.
The Challenger: Camren Williams (6-1, 225, So.)
Photo by Jim Davidson
It’s possible the Buckeyes could give Joshua Perry a look inside this spring, but the biggest competition for Curtis Grant will probably be Camren Williams.
The son of former New England Patriots’ defensive end Brent Williams is heading into his sophomore year at Ohio State. He ended up serving as the backup middle linebacker over the second half of last season and he could be a little further along in his mental development than Grant.
Williams was a 4-star prospect in the class of 2011 and the No. 8 inside linebacker prospect in the country according to Rivals.com. He was a member of the National Honor Society at Catholic Memorial High School in Massachusetts and is considering studying kinesiology at Ohio State.
The Darkhorse: Luke Roberts (6-1, 226, So.)
One guy most Ohio State fans have already forgotten about from last year’s recruiting class is Luke Roberts out of Lancaster. He wasn’t a 5-star prospect or an Army All-American, but Roberts is a tough-nosed football player who brings a little bit of that old school Zach Boren mentality to the position.
He enrolled early last January and played some special teams as a freshman with the Buckeyes in 2012. Roberts had 214 tackles and 42 tackles-for-loss over his final two seasons at Lancaster. He isn’t going to wow anyone with his athletic ability, but people would have said the same about Boren early in his career.
Right now, Fickell is just looking for someone with good instincts and natural leadership abilities to man the middle of the defense. Don’t rule out the possibility Roberts could provide some of that in the spring.
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