Questions at linebacker

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Last updated: 06/03/2014 1:05 AM
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Football
Buckeyes Know They Have Questions to Answer at Linebacker
By Tony Gerdeman

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Having question marks at linebacker isn't something that normally happens at Ohio State, or at least it didn't use to happen.

For the last few years, however, the new normal has consisted of the unknown rearing its sometimes-ugly head at perhaps the school's most history-laden position.

It's been a while since Ohio State was confident and competent three abreast at linebacker, and those concerns haven't been eased this coming season with the departure of All-American Ryan Shazier.

The Buckeyes will be trotting out an as-of-yet-undecided middle linebacker, but the candidates are a senior looking to finally make an impact, a true freshman, or a junior who is caught somewhere in the middle.

The linebackers next to him will be a redshirt freshman and a junior starting for his second season, but doing it at a brand new position.

The unproven is essentially what Ohio State will be running out at linebacker this year.

"It's big, but that's the thing," explained defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. 

"We've all got to put a lot of things in our rear-view mirror. That's what we've got to try and tell them. It's a confidence issue. Whether you're an older guy or a younger guy, we've got to make sure that these guys all play together. I think that's the one thing that started to happen at the end when things were getting tough and we're not playing well, everybody goes into their little shell, whether you're a coach or a player. 

"So we're going to rely on those older guys. They've been through a lot of battles. They've been through some ups and downs. They’ve been through a 24-game winning streak. They've been through a two-game losing streak. They've got to feed off of those experiences that they've had."

A few of those ups and downs were the linebackers' own doing. Everything at Ohio State has a standard that has been set, be it player, coach, or grounds crew, and the standard at linebacker has not been met as well as those coaches and players would have liked.

Urban Meyer has attempted to rebuild the linebacker depth at Ohio State through recruiting, and in so doing he plans on reaching that old standard sooner rather than later.

Doing it sooner means that this group of linebackers definitely has pressure on them. How they react to that pressure will determine much of the OSU defensive success this season.

"Pressure? We take that as a challenge and stick together and work together and work on the stuff we need to work on to become better," said middle linebacker Curtis Grant this spring.

"Spring ball is competition. We've got good guys in the room so there's always competition. If you don't come out here and approach it like that you're going to lose your job."

The influx of depth -- four linebackers in the 2014 class and three in the 2013 class -- means that there are more options for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to turn to. If somebody isn't getting the job done, they will turn to "Door #2".

The chances of the same three linebackers starting against both Navy to open the season and Michigan to close it are probably 50/50 at best. That's because of the question marks -- the doubt -- at the position currently.

"I think it's funny," said junior Camren Williams of the attention that the linebackers received this spring. 

"I think it helps us get better. If nobody was looking at us and everybody was just expecting us to do what we do and nobody had high expectations for us, I don't think we would grind as hard, I don't think we would focus as hard, I don't think we would do everything with so much effort if nobody was really paying attention to what we were doing. So I think it's definitely helpful and it's a good thing really that everybody is focusing on us and everybody is expecting us to be where Ohio State linebackers are supposed to be."

Everybody was watching the Ohio State linebackers this spring, and most of what was seen was positive. Much of that positivity centered around youngsters like redshirt freshmen Darron Lee and Chris Worley, as well as true freshman Raekwon McMillan.

This new influx of first-time players could be the difference between the linebackers sinking and swimming this year.

"It's very important [for the young guys to progress this spring] because you never know when your number is going to be called," Grant said. 

"You don't want to be thrown in and not know what you're doing. That makes you look bad and your teammates don't trust you, and that's not a good thing. You always want to come in and get started right away so when your number is called you're ready to go."

Trust is a big thing for the OSU linebackers, and it's been a while since they have had the type of trust that has normally been thrust upon that position.

The players themselves know that there are questions out there about them because they hear them every day. Those questions will continue to pile up until they can finally begin to answer them in the fall.

Whether or not those questions will finally go away, however, will depend upon the answers that are given.

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