- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.
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.
-- 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.