Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Year in review: Wild ride for linebackers
By Austin Ward
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A position-by-position look at a perfect season for Ohio State, continuing today by looking back at an up-and-down season for the guys at the second level of the defense, a group that took off after a surprising midseason addition.
Ryan Shazier was the Buckeyes' most valuable and productive linebacker as a sophomore.
Most valuable player: There's not any question that Ryan Shazier was the most outstanding player at linebacker, and his numbers and various contributions might well give him a case that he was the one defender the Buckeyes couldn't live without. And while Zach Boren didn't play a full season at the position, didn't have anywhere near as much statistical production and still looked more like a fullback for a couple weeks after moving over to the defensive side of the ball, the senior's willingness to make the transition stands out by itself as invaluable to the team dynamic. But on top of that, the way he willed it into a success to stabilize a position that was already thin before getting wiped out by injuries will go down in Ohio State lore.
By the numbers: The math is pretty easy, given the even split of the season for Boren, who moved over to linebacker during a Tuesday practice just before the seventh game of the year and never went back. It also helps to have a nice round number, and Boren's 50 tackles would have put him on pace to be the only defender aside from Shazier to hit triple digits if he'd spent the entire season chasing the football instead of occasionally carrying it at fullback. Considering how quickly he zoomed through the learning curve and how well he was playing at linebacker by the end of the season, perhaps Boren's stats would have looked even better over a full slate. But at the rate he produced over six games, a 12-game Boren might have looked like this: 100 tackles, seven tackles for a loss, two sacks, two forced fumbles and two recoveries.
Best moment: Wearing a different jersey number to honor a fallen friend, Shazier took the tribute to another level by jumping in front of a pass at Penn State for a momentum-swinging interception, cruising 17 yards and punching in a touchdown that put the Buckeyes in control of both the game and ultimately the race for a division title. After one of his finest overall games in a season that included several choices as the best, Shazier added two sacks and a forced fumble before emotionally reflecting on the circumstances that led to him putting on No. 48 for a game.
Preseason question: Can the Buckeyes find some depth at the second level?
Postseason answer: The defense was never able to establish a rotation that included much more than the starters, and it took a moment of inspiration from coach Urban Meyer as he moved Boren over to linebacker just to keep the first unit stocked with guys he trusted in the middle of the season. Storm Klein's two-game suspension and late-season injuries provided one hurdle, Curtis Grant's slow progression offered another and a rash of injuries to freshmen and starter Etienne Sabino made it a challenge just to roll out three capable linebackers. But Boren's steady contributions and Shazier's huge breakout campaign kept the Buckeyes afloat, though Meyer will certainly not be trying to duplicate that formula ever again.
Looking ahead: On the bright side, the Buckeyes are only replacing one linebacker who was a starter during training camp in August. The negative? Klein wasn't technically a member of the team then, and Boren was on offense -- leaving just Shazier as a proven commodity heading into the offseason. That's certainly a great place to start for any defense, though, and the Buckeyes made signing linebackers a recruiting priority in Meyer's first class last year. Those rising sophomores were largely limited to work on special teams, but Joshua Perry, Jamal Marcus, David Perkins and Camren Williams will have to step up and fill larger roles if the Buckeyes are going to make another run next fall. Of course, the biggest boost might come from Grant if he can develop and live up to his immense potential after two seasons on the periphery.