Ohio State Buckeyes: Camren Williams

We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
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Ohio State Buckeyes, Illinois Fighting Illini, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Indiana Hoosiers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Iowa Hawkeyes, Maryland Terrapins, Big Ten Conference, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Purdue Boilermakers, Big Ten, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Darron Lee, Reggie Spearman, Raekwon McMillan, Camren Williams, De'Niro Laster, Denicos Allen, Jonathan Brown, Max Bullough, Curtis Grant, Jake Ryan, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Joshua Perry, Marcus Whitfield, Jon Reschke, Shane Jones, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Trey Johnson, Ben Gedeon, De'Vondre Campbell, Ben Kline, David Cooper, Michael Trotter, Nyeem Wartman, Ryan Russell, Zaire Anderson, Collin Ellis, Damien Wilson, Drew Smith, Derek Landisch, Eric Finney, Jimmy Hall, James Ross III, Leon Jacobs, Joe Gilliam, Josh Banderas, Mason Monheim, Gelen Robinson, Joe Schobert, T.J. Simmons, Damien Proby, Brandon Bell, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Nathan Gerry, Mylan Hicks, Troy Reeder, Taiwan Jones, Michael Rose, Ed Davis, Marcus Trotter, Darien Harris, Brian Knorr, B1G spring positions 14, Matt Robinson, Abner Logan, Alec James, Alex Twine, Allen Gant, Cole Farrand, Cole Fisher, Danny Ezechukwu, David Santos, Davon Jacobs, Forisse Hardin, Gary Wooten, Jack Lynn, Jamal Merrell, Jaylen Prater, Joseph Jones, Kevin Snyder, L.A. Goree, L.J. Liston, Marcus Newby, Mike Hull, Mike Svetina, Nick Rallis, Quentin Gause, Quinton Alston, Ralph Cooper, Steve Longa, T.J. Neal, Travis Perry, Vince Biegel, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil

Top spring position battles: No. 3

February, 19, 2014
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.

But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and another position on offense in the countdown, the series shifts to the other side of the ball for a critical competition in the middle of the defense.

[+] EnlargeTrey Johnson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesTrey Johnson, a top prospect signed in the 2013 class, could step in for Ryan Shazier at outside linebacker.
No. 3: Outside linebacker

  • Predecessor: Ryan Shazier (143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 4 forced fumbles; declared early for the NFL draft)
  • Candidates: Sophomore Trey Johnson, junior Camren Williams, sophomore Darron Lee, true freshmen Sam Hubbard, Raekwon McMillan
  • Why to watch: With two returning starters, on the surface there appears to be only one hole to fill, and it's the gaping one left behind by Shazier at the most beleaguered position group on the roster. But even with Curtis Grant in the middle and Joshua Perry looking like a viable option at strongside linebacker, there still could be shakeups at those spots, depending on just how quickly some of the young talent can transition to life at Ohio State and the Big Ten. Assuming Grant and Perry build on their steady, but certainly not spectacular, 2013 seasons and solidify themselves in those jobs, that will put an even brighter spotlight on the guys trying to replace a player who was one of the most productive linebackers in the country in the last two seasons. The Buckeyes counted on Shazier to do so much work from sideline to sideline, in the backfield and in pass coverage, that simply plugging in one guy and expecting similar results isn't realistic. That will make it imperative for Ohio State to weigh its options at each spot during the spring, regardless of previous position or experience, and make sure it has the best group of three it can put on the field as it tries again to live up to the high expectations the program has for its linebackers.
  • Pre-camp edge: There aren't many positions more difficult for a true freshman to make an instant impact than linebacker, but the hype around McMillan is already building thanks to his early enrollment and a mature body that clearly has impressed Urban Meyer. His development figures to be aided by going through spring practice, and that should also be a big benefit for the coaching staff as they get a look at where he might fit best. But either way, Johnson is a sure bet to line up with the first-team defense when camp opens in March, and he has been praised for his football intelligence and sharp instincts. He's certainly no slouch as an athlete, either, and the Buckeyes are expecting more from him than the six games and 11 tackles he chipped in as a freshman.
Believe it or not, spring football in the Big Ten is just around the corner. Several teams moved up their spring practice dates, and three of them -- Maryland, Michigan and Northwestern -- will take the field next week.

Spring ball is all about development, and some position groups need to make significant strides before the summer.

Here are five ...

Illinois' defensive line: Coach Tim Beckman kept his defensive staff in place for what should be a make-or-break season in Champaign. Coordinator Bill Cubit's presence should stabilize the offense despite the loss of quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, so the season likely hinges on whether the defense improves. There are some nice returning pieces at linebacker, but the line needs a boost after Illinois finished last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally against the run. Lineman Paul James, who originally signed with Illinois in 2013 but delayed his enrollment until January, is among those who will take the field this spring. There's plenty of competition throughout the line, and while help arrives this summer with Jihad Ward and others, Illinois needs some linemen to emerge right away.

Michigan's offensive line: Despite a first-round draft pick at left tackle (Taylor Lewan), Michigan's front five struggled mightily during the 2013 season, as young players didn't blossom quickly enough and the team couldn't consistently run the ball between the tackles. Coordinator Al Borges took the fall, but line coach Darrell Funk and his group will be under the microscope when the Wolverines begin spring practice Feb. 25. Michigan started nine different linemen in 2013 and used five lineup combinations. As tackles Lewan and Michael Schofield both depart, every position is up for grabs this spring. It will also be interesting to see how new coordinator Doug Nussmeier makes an impact on the line.

[+] EnlargeNebraska vs Minnesota
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsMitch Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience on the Minnesota roster.
Minnesota's quarterbacks: At least nine Big Ten teams will have true quarterback competitions this spring, but arguably none has as much mystery as Minnesota. Philip Nelson's transfer following the season creates a wide-open race between Mitch Leidner, Chris Streveler, Conor Rhoda and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy, a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback who enrolled mid-year and will participate in spring practice. Leidner is the only quarterback with college game experience, appearing in 10 games last fall and recording 1,026 yards (619 passing, 403 rushing). Perhaps Leidner separates himself, but no matter what, Minnesota wants a clearer picture coming out of the spring.

Ohio State's linebackers: Coach Urban Meyer has made it very clear that Ohio State's linebacker play has fallen short of program standards. Meyer singled out the linebacker position in the 2014 recruiting class, saying on national signing day, "Far too many mistakes have been made in either lack of development or whatever, and it's just not where we need to be." Ohio State loses by far its best linebacker in Ryan Shazier, so there's pressure on returnees such as Curtis Grant, Joshua Perry and Camren Williams, as well as newcomers such as five-star prospect Raekwon McMillan, a mid-year enrollee who will be on the field this spring. Meyer said there are no redshirt plans for McMillan or the other three linebackers in the 2014 class.

Wisconsin's wide receivers: The Badgers' quarterback competition likely will garner more attention, but whoever emerges under center will need more options in the passing game. Jared Abbrederis has been Wisconsin's wide receiving corps for the past two season, and he'll be playing in the NFL this fall. You can only get by so much with pass-catching tight ends and running backs, so receivers coach Chris Beatty and his group need a strong spring session. Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe and Alex Erickson lead the returnees, but Wisconsin needs young players such as speedster Robert Wheelwright to emerge. Help is on the way this summer as several promising recruits arrive, but Wisconsin can't pin its hopes exclusively on incoming freshmen.

Injury bug taking a toll on Buckeyes

November, 20, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There won't be a surprise appearance with an offensive starter magically showing up to save the day on defense.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Icon SMIAs the regular season winds down, injuries have been piling up for Urban Meyer's defense.
If there was a candidate to fill Zach Boren's versatile shoes and make that jump, Ohio State would have already pulled that rabbit out of its hat by now.

But just like the Buckeyes had to do a year ago as they prepared for Indiana, they've been hit by a string of injuries that are stretching the defense thin at a crucial point in the season. And while the health concerns haven't forced coach Urban Meyer into a desperate enough situation that he needs to find a new starter from the other side of the ball this week, he is spending a lot of time teaching offensive players to tackle as the cumulative effects trickle down and start creating leaks elsewhere.

"Our effort this week is we're beat up a little bit," Meyer said. "Right now we're just going through it, and it's showing up in our coverage units a little bit. I want to say nine players are out for the season, scholarship players. Seven or eight of them are guys we were all counting on.

"Our emphasis is on teaching people how to tackle. We have five offensive players on punts right now. Never had that. Punt, you go down and tackle. When guys have never tackled in their career, that's bad coaching by us."

It might simply be just bad luck instead, since most of the recent problems have clustered for the Buckeyes on defense. Linebacker Joshua Perry wasn't even hurt on the field, missing last week's game at Illinois after slipping on ice.

But that unexpected issue for Perry, lingering ankle and back problems for fellow starting linebacker Curtis Grant, the season-ending broken ankle suffered by Christian Bryant, a neck injury that forced defensive end Joey Bosa to the sideline last week and a handful of other health concerns for key special-teams contributors have again forced the Buckeyes to get creative late in the season.

Perry is likely to return this week, and Grant could perhaps be back on the field as well. But the roster has not yet been restocked with enough bodies to help Meyer absorb many personnel losses, particularly at linebacker, which remains as thin as it was a year ago when Boren traded in his offensive responsibilities at fullback to plug a hole on defense with just a few days to prepare for the Hoosiers.

The Buckeyes pieced things together at Illinois last week by moving reserve outside linebacker Camren Williams into the middle and playing a lot of nickel and dime packages. But the coverage units were clearly short on tacklers, as they had their worst outing of the season and gave up a long punt return for a touchdown that highlighted perhaps Meyer's biggest area of concern down the stretch.

"Obviously, we've got to improve," Meyer said. "That's our focus this week, getting some players back. The problem is I'm not sure how many of those guys are going to get back, so we're preparing some of the younger guys to either play or play a little better.

"We're spending time. Either you try to create some defensive players, which doesn't usually work this time of year, or you just teach and get better."

The Buckeyes had a ready-made option to create a defender last year in time for the Hoosiers and their high-powered offense. This season, they're just trying to develop enough offensive players to fill out their special teams and make a few tackles.

With any conference there will always be battles on the recruiting trail within the Big Ten. Coaching changes, different philosophies and geographic location all factor in to who battles who.

Here is a look at the top five Big Ten recruiting rivalries.
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- No matter how much confidence Urban Meyer has expressed in the personnel and his coaching staff, there's obviously still one area that has his attention and perhaps leaves some reason for concern.

Even his only holdover at linebacker isn't so sure of what exactly Ohio State has in the middle of the defense just a few days out from the season opener.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesRyan Shazier is putting a lot of pressure on himself to carry an inexperienced unit.
Ryan Shazier is certainly a sturdy cornerstone to begin a rebuilding project for any defense, and the junior linebacker has had nothing but positive reviews for the two new starters breaking into the lineup with him on Saturday at home against Buffalo. But just like his coach, that doesn't mean there isn't some uncertainty for a unit that will be under intense scrutiny.

"I feel like the biggest concern right now is we have a lot of inexperience in the front seven and a lot of young guys," Shazier said. "So when you’ve got a lot of guys who haven’t played together, it’s kind of a struggle.

"I have to try to get [the linebackers] right. Everything else, I feel like the defensive line is doing a great job, the secondary is doing a great job, I’ve just got to get the linebackers right. We really aren’t right now, but I just have to get everybody ready for this first game."

Shazier isn't going to be held directly responsible for what Curtis Grant does in the middle or Joshua Perry does at strongside linebacker, but he has put the pressure on himself to get them up to speed as a thin group of linebackers tries to get back to the traditionally high standard the Buckeyes hold for the unit.

The depth chart released by the program on Tuesday offered only another reminder of the lack of experience among the Buckeyes expected to contribute this fall. There's a true freshman in Trey Johnson listed behind Shazier. Another true freshman in Mike Mitchell is bracketed with walk-on Joe Burger in support of Grant. And sophomore Camren Williams, who was largely limited to a role on special teams last year, is listed after Perry.

With Shazier the only real known quantity of the bunch, the veteran has at times been overly stressed about setting the tone and leading that group, pressing to do too much on his own and maybe even stressing himself out ahead of the opener. And while Meyer has made it clear that development at linebacker is of critical importance early in the season, lately he has been making sure to deliver another message: Shazier doesn't have to do it all on his own.

"I have seen a guy that was pressing ... and he feels the void of what was there last year," Meyer said. "The last week, he's been Ryan Shazier again, not worrying and just playing. His actions will take care of it. Just lead by example and know when the time is right to be a vocal leader.

"He was certainly feeling pressure about it, and we've had a couple conversations about it."

The Buckeyes should have much more to discuss after the weekend when they finally get some game film to break down. They already know what to expect from an unburdened Shazier, but the guys next to him have something to prove -- both to a veteran teammate and the head coach.

Position preview: Linebackers

August, 23, 2013
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Breaking down the Ohio State roster as training camp winds down and the program turns its attention to the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.

LINEBACKERS

Top of the depth chart: Ryan Shazier on the weak side, Joshua Perry on the strong and Curtis Grant in between them.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier led the Buckeyes in tackles, tackles for loss and forced fumbles in 2012.
Next in line: There is hardly any depth to speak of on the Ohio State roster at a position that has long been a source of pride for the program, and the numbers are low enough that walk-on Joe Burger could be a valuable part of the rotation. The Buckeyes have high hopes for a pair of freshmen signed in February, and Mike Mitchell has already emerged as a viable second-team option behind Grant. Trey Johnson has been somewhat slowed by injury during training camp, but he should contribute along with sophomore Camren Williams as the Buckeyes try to replace Zach Boren and Etienne Sabino.

New faces: The Buckeyes could have perhaps used more than two linebackers in the last recruiting class, but they did land a couple who have the athleticism and intelligence to lend a hand early in their careers. Mitchell has long been a student of the position and is well versed in the tradition at middle linebacker, and if for some reason the injury bug keeps following around Grant or he struggles in September, he could be on the field quickly. Johnson has been a bit banged up this month, but the Buckeyes will need him to speed through the learning curve to supply some much-needed depth.

Recruiting trail: The 2014 class already includes a pair of outside linebackers, including four-star prospect in Kyle Berger (Cleveland/St. Ignatius). But the real prize would be a pledge from Raekwon McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County), a monster inside linebacker currently ranked No. 14 in the nation among all players in the ESPN 300. Assuming Shazier returns for his senior season, the cupboard might once again start looking full at Ohio State in the heart of the defense.

Flexibility: Until the roster gets back where defensive coordinator Luke Fickell needs it, there’s only so much he can do with his unit. Shazier isn’t likely to leave the field under any circumstance, and the desire, and perhaps, necessity to play more nickel and dime packages, somewhat lessens the number of bodies needed on hand. Perry is expected to be a factor as the second option at linebacker in the nickel, and even with Grant’s injury concerns during camp, he remains the top option in the middle.

Notable numbers:

-- Nobody offered more to the Ohio State defense a year ago than Shazier, even while fighting through a painful sports hernia that required offseason surgery and slowed him down physically during the second half of last season. He still led the team in tackles (115), tackles for a loss (17) and forced fumbles (3), and his 5 sacks are the highest total of any returning defender.

-- Neither Perry or Grant were able to supply much off the bench a year ago, and the two combined for just 13 tackles in 18 combined appearances. The Buckeyes obviously need both of those numbers to improve dramatically given their high-profile roles moving forward.

-- In roughly half of a season each, Boren and Sabino couldn’t match the ruthless efficiency and production of Shazier -- but the combined contributions weren’t too shabby. Putting their statistics together, the tandem chipped in 95 tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, an interception and a fumble recovery.

Big question: Can the Buckeyes survive again?

Whether it was through injury or ineffectiveness, an already thin group of linebackers a year ago was dwindling to the point of desperation when Boren made the shocking switch from fullback to middle linebacker in the middle of the season. But if one more injury had struck Fickell’s unit, what then? The Buckeyes are increasingly loading up with the type of talent the program has long been known for across the roster, but the linebacker position has been lagging behind so far and this season could once again require a test of creativity if injuries pop up to the starting unit. Few teams in the country could sustain the loss of a player as gifted as Shazier, so keeping him fresh and on the field is obviously a priority. But the Buckeyes also need Perry and a rejuvenated Grant on hand and playing at a high level if they’re going to be a true championship contender, and the focus will be on their development as much as their health moving forward.

Linebacker depth takes another hit 

July, 2, 2013
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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The depth was already dwindling.

Now the group of linebackers signed in Urban Meyer's first class to help restock Ohio State's cupboard is starting to look a bit empty as well.


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Why Meyer takes patient approach 

June, 11, 2013
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Some coaches come out in flurry. Some like to wait and close the door behind everyone else.

While Michigan and Ohio State go at the recruiting process differently -- or more to the point, Brady Hoke and Urban Meyer -- both strategies work.

Hoke has the No. 1 2014 recruiting class right now. Michigan held the same distinction at this point last year before falling to No. 6. And no one closes quite like Meyer.


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Spring forward: MLBs breakdown

February, 25, 2013
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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.

MIDDLE LINEBACKERS
      [+] EnlargeCurtis Grant
      Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMiddle linebacker Curtis Grant is looking to finally break through in 2014.

    • 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.

(Read full post)

Spring forward: OLBs breakdown

February, 22, 2013
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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.

[+] EnlargeRyan Shazier
David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesOhio State linebacker Ryan Shazier improved markedly over the 2012 season.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Who's back: Only one first-teamer is returning at the second level for the Buckeyes, but Ryan Shazier is certainly a fine place to start. The junior emerged as one of the most prolific defenders in the Big Ten a year ago, and if he's not a household name around the country yet, he should be soon as the hype builds leading into next season. Shazier does need a sidekick on the other side of the formation after Etienne Sabino exhausted his eligibility, and Ohio State has a handful of rising sophomores to sort through in March and April as it reloads the front seven. Joshua Perry, David Perkins, Camren Williams and Jamal Marcus all got their feet wet in some form or fashion as freshmen, and mixing and matching to find the right spots and best combination at linebacker will be at the top of the priority list this spring.
  • New face: The Buckeyes already have high hopes for the two highly touted linebackers they landed on national signing day, but they won't get to see what Mike Mitchell or Trey Johnson can do on the practice field until August. The coaching staff cast a wide net at the position a year ago, though, and the development of the second-year guys who weren't exactly regulars last fall will be critical.
  • Projected spring depth chart: Shazier will be back in his familiar role at weakside linebacker, with the athletic Perkins likely filling in behind him. Perry appears to be at the head of the line to replace Sabino on the opposite side, with Perkins battling for the gig as well.
  • Numbers game: The newcomers did get a taste of what college football is all about right away, but chances to contribute in meaningful situations on defense were hard to come by. Shazier and his senior counterparts rarely came off the field a year ago, and in limited work defensively and more regular appearances on special teams, the quartet of Perkins, Marcus, Perry and Williams combined for 22 tackles. That total, obviously, will have to improve dramatically -- and there will be no shortage of chances to do it.
  • One to watch: The way the coaches raved about the natural ability and the tireless way Marcus competed during training camp last August, it seemed like he was poised to make a substantial impact right away. Ultimately the rigors of one of the more difficult positions to play as a true freshman seemed to slow him down, but with a full season now behind him and the benefits of spring practice now ahead of him, Marcus should be in much better position to put his skills on display and potentially work his way into more playing time as a sophomore.
  • He said it: "Really, if you think about it, Shazier is the only experience we've got in the front seven coming back next year -- [only one] with a lot of experience. I think with that whole group, it's going to be an exciting time. I know I'm excited. We've got some young guys, maybe at linebacker we're a lot thinner with just depth and numbers, but it's going to be an exciting time. It's a big winter, and it's going to be a big spring." -- defensive coordinator Luke Fickell on signing day

Late-game success could bolster class 

February, 1, 2013
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Ohio State heads into the weekend still wanting a wide receiver, craving an offensive lineman and praying Vonn Bell (Rossville, Ga./Ridgeland) falls into its lap.

While the Buckeyes could get all three or strike out and be done with the class as it sits now, that remains to be seen.

That said a late-day snare -- even as late as national signing day -- isn’t out of the question.

Last year, Ohio State was able to score three commitments at the last second to shore up what became the sixth-ranked class in the nation.


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Signing day primer: Ohio State 

January, 23, 2013
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Team needs: Ohio State needs a defensive front seven to jell quickly in 2013. The only returning starter from last year’s front seven is Ryan Shazier, and while he’s a great one, he needs some help.

[+] EnlargeEli Woodard
Scott Fink for ESPN.comFive-star cornerback Eli Apple is already enrolled at Ohio State.
The secondary is strong with every player returning, but the defensive line will be incredibly young this season. There’s also a need for a wide receiver. That’s more a numbers game, however.

Help is on the way: Urban Meyer hasn’t messed around in trying to fix the problem. His two-deep chart on defense last season included freshmen Adolphus Washington, Tommy Schutt, Connor Crowell, Camren Williams and Joshua Perry, and Crowell is leaving the program because of medical issues. This year, he has six defensive linemen coming in and another three linebackers.

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The work for the 2013 season is already underway for Ohio State with the strength program in full swing, but the first moves that started shaping the potential encore effort from a perfect campaign began almost two months ago. BuckeyeNation is counting down the five biggest early developments for the team since last season ended and how they will impact the Buckeyes moving forward.

No. 3: Buckeyes land pledges at a critical position
    [+] EnlargeTrey Johnson
    Miller Safrit/ESPNThe commitment of Trey Johnson on Jan. 4 gave Ohio State a much-needed shot in the arm at linebacker.

  • Development: For the better part of a year, the biggest hole on Ohio State's 2013 recruiting class was the same as void that can be found on the current roster. The Buckeyes were thin enough at linebacker, but heading into January, they didn't even a single pledge at the position. It only took two days for Urban Meyer and his coaching staff to fix that this month, with a pair of ESPN 150 recruits making their intentions to sign with the Buckeyes public, as Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson helped boost a class that's currently ranked No. 4 in the country.
  • What it means: The demands of the position can make the transition from high school to the Big Ten a bit more challenging for a linebacker than it might be at a few other spots on the field, so it's difficult to project exactly how much the talented tandem might contribute right away for a team that is likely going to start the season among the top 5 programs in the country. That certainly doesn't mean Mitchell or Johnson can't be a factor, but the best-case scenario for the Buckeyes would be that they find two starters to pair with Ryan Shazier out of the group they signed a year ago -- or one guy to match with Curtis Grant if he's ready to live up to his billing coming out of high school. With Jamal Marcus, Camren Williams, David Perkins and Joshua Perry all having gone through a season, spent time learning the defense and benefitting from the upcoming work in spring practice, there are plenty of options already on hand for defensive coordinator Luke Fickell. But just in case a reminder of the importance of depth was needed, all Ohio State has to do is look at the situation it was in last season.
  • Numbers game: The high school resume doesn't always offer a true reflection of the potential for a recruit, so it has to be taken with at least a couple grains of salt. But the statistics Mitchell and Johnson put on paper are hard to ignore. As a senior at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas, Mitchell piled up 186 tackles, with 32 of them going for a loss. At Central Gwinnett in Lawrenceville, Ga., Johnson was credited with 140 takedowns. The two potential Buckeyes combined for 14 sacks.
  • He said it: "At this time, we like our class. As with most classes, how you finish is what determines if you love the class. You have to hold on to what you have. There’s a lot of chaos with a lot of new staffs, new coaches trying to take your players and all that kind of stuff. We just have to keep recruiting our players and get going." -- Meyer on the homestretch for the 2013 recruiting class

Meyer showing proficiency as closer 

January, 9, 2013
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Mariano Rivera, save the split-finger fastball. The same goes for you Rollie Fingers, with your almost unhittable slider. The best closer in the recruiting business might indeed be Ohio State coach Urban Meyer.

On the job 13 1/2 months with the Buckeyes, the two-time national champion’s early returns show just how strong he is at slamming the door shut on a class.

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