- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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With national signing day in the books, the next big date on the Ohio State calendar as it continues working toward an encore for an undefeated season in 2013 is spring practice. Before those workouts begin, BuckeyeNation will take a look at each position to see where the roster is at -- and where it's going.
Who's back: Almost as suddenly as he arrived, Zach Boren's run at middle linebacker for the Buckeyes was over. Now they're left once again to find somebody capable of quarterbacking the defense, and as remarkable as Boren's story was at the position, it also underscored just how little depth the program had there at the halfway point of last season. Curtis Grant was supposed to be the answer after winning the starting job in spring practice and keeping it throughout training camp, but the rising junior ultimately wasn't a factor for the second year in a row and was passed on the depth chart twice before finishing as a third-team afterthought. The former elite recruit still has upside, though, and the Buckeyes will be monitoring him closely in a likely battle with sophomore Camren Williams to take over that critical spot in the heart of the defense.
New face: Trey Johnson drew praise on signing day from the Ohio State coaching staff for his advanced football intelligence, and Mike Mitchell's eye-popping athleticism is hard to ignore. Both of those traits would certainly go a long way in helping them handle a wide range of responsibilities while balancing the often challenging transition to the next level and potentially becoming an answer in the middle. But they won't be around to compete on the practice field with the rest of the linebackers until August, which certainly favors the returners.
Projected spring depth chart: The Buckeyes have seen late-bloomers contribute before, and they don't have to look back far to see what Etienne Sabino gave them after a somewhat rocky start. Grant isn't down to his last chance yet, but this one figures to be the most important in his career as he heads into camp likely bracketed with Williams.
Numbers game: Through two seasons with the program, Grant has appeared in 18 games -- and he's got just 10 tackles to show for it. Those aren't the kind of numbers the Buckeyes were anticipating when they landed the third-rated inside linebacker in the country in the class of 2011, and there's no doubt they're looking for much more from Grant as a junior.
One to watch: Grant is going to be receiving plenty of attention, but the focus can't be solely on him at such a crucial position defensively. Williams didn't arrive on campus with nearly as much acclaim, but he's got solid size at 6-foot-1, 225 pounds and also possesses the tackling ability to be productive up the middle. Somebody is going to have to come out of spring practice with the starting job, and there's no reason to write off the chances of Williams just because he only mada three tackles as a true freshman.
He said it: "Is it going to be difficult [for a freshman]? Yeah, it's going to be very difficult. But hopefully with some of the experience that we have, a Ryan Shazier there with a lot of experience, it doesn't matter which [linebacker] is the guy that's in the middle that's helping everybody out as long as there's one. That's what is exciting and it's why they call us coaches and why we have spring ball." -- defensive coordinator Luke Fickell on signing day on identifying leaders at linebacker
5dDan Murphy and Austin Ward