Ohio State Buckeyes: Joe Burger

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
8/23/13
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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.

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