- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The offseason conditioning program is in full swing. Signing day has come and gone. Blink and spring practice will already be here.
Ohio State is less than a month away from getting back on the field and starting preparations for the 2014 season, and those days probably can't go by fast enough for a program coming off consecutive losses after a 24-game winning streak. To help pass the time, we're counting down the top five players who are facing critical springs, either because it's a turning point in their careers or the Buckeyes are counting heavily on them to fill vacant jobs as they try to get back in contention for a national title again in the fall. The journey concludes today with an absolutely crucial position of need.
No. 1: Trey Johnson, linebacker
By the numbers: The touted recruit appeared in six games as a freshman, chipping in 11 tackles and getting credit for a quarterback hit.
What’s at stake: There aren’t any bigger shoes to fill on the Ohio State roster than the cleats Ryan Shazier left behind at outside linebacker, and identifying a replacement for one of the nation’s most productive defenders is at the top of the checklist in spring practice. The unit as a whole has been perilously short on depth for the last two seasons, and even with Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry returning as starters, Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer has been vocal both about his disappointment in the linebackers and the emphasis he’s placing on making big strides there this season. That process starts in earnest when camp opens in March, and, after drawing high praise from the coaching staff as a potential contributor right away when he signed last year, Johnson will need to live up to that hype after spending his freshman season largely as an observer.
Best-case scenario: The Buckeyes signed four linebackers to compete for spots in the rotation and supply some depth in the fall, but what they really need is Johnson to solidify himself in Shazier’s old spot and prove that he can be the same type of sideline-to-sideline force defensively. Johnson seems to have the athleticism to get the job done, and he’s been widely praised dating back to last year for having unnatural instincts and a knack for diagnosing plays that would suggest he’ll be able to make an impact at the second level. Maybe Johnson won’t be able to deliver exactly as much production as Shazier as a sophomore, but as long as he stamps himself as the top contender to fill that role, the Buckeyes should be fine with every other starter in the front seven returning next fall.