COLUMBUS: There’s no use denying it, so Ohio State linebackers don’t.
No position group will be under more scrutiny than them, and none has more to prove. Ryan Shazier is an All-America candidate. Other than him, there are only questions.
Joshua Perry said the pressure is something they talk about daily.
“We have the most pressure on us out of anyone on the defense,” said Perry, a sophomore from Lewis Center, after the second spring practice Thursday. “Even the young guys on the d-line definitely played more than our linebackers, who were young. We have to step up and definitely prove to everybody on our team first that we can do it before we can prove it to other people.”
Perry is confident that will happen.
“We’ve got guys who want to do it,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. If you want to, you can do it.”
Other than Shazier, the linebacker position was a bit of a black hole last year. When Etienne Sabino suffered a broken leg against Nebraska, the Buckeyes turned to fullback Zach Boren, who stabilized the defense. Coach Urban Meyer asked Boren to switch before the Indiana game because the linebacker group resembled an infirmary. But none of them distinguished themselves when given a chance. The most notable was middle linebacker Curtis Grant. The five-star recruit lost his starting job after only three games.
“I got too complacent,” he said. “I couldn’t handle the glory, I guess, of being a starter. I should have kept working harder.”
Grant said he considered transferring but vowed to come back stronger. He said he had always been a leader until he got to Ohio State and had to learn from older players. Now he believes he’s ready to lead again.
“When it’s your time, you feel it,” he said. “You feel different. I feel like my old high-school self.”
On Tuesday, Meyer said he “absolutely” had faith in Grant’s ability to do the job.
“Everybody matures at different times,” defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. “It’s not lack of ability. It’s just having some confidence and having the ability to let loose.”
Fickell said the two spots alongside Shazier are open. Perry has the versatility to play outside or middle linebacker. Camren Williams, also a sophomore, is regarded as a smart player. He will challenge for the middle spot.
Luke Roberts and David Perkins are two more sophomores who will be given their chance. In the summer, blue-chip freshmen Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson will arrive.
On Tuesday, Meyer said the Buckeyes might use their nickel defense frequently this season to stop opponents’ passing offenses. That might mean that only one linebacker spot besides Shazier’s is up for grabs.
“We’re going to play the best 11 guys,” Fickell said. “We’re going to put the best 11 tacklers on the field and find a way to be successful. If that happens to be two linebackers, three linebackers, four linebackers or whatever it is, we’re going to find a way to get the best 11 out there.”
Fickell is understandably reluctant to make strong declarations based on two days of practice in shorts. But he is optimistic that the linebackers won’t be a liability by the time the season opens.
“I have the utmost confidence,” he said.
Shazier, the lone returning starter in the defensive front seven at Ohio State, has had to stand and watch at spring practice. It wasn’t what the junior linebacker had in mind, but recovery from a sports hernia comes first.
As for when he might be able to return, “To be honest, I really don’t know,” Shazier said Thursday. “I’ve just been doing my rehab with the trainers and everything, and they just tell me take it day-by-day. So I’m seeing how everything goes, and just trying to get back as soon as possible.”
Shazier said the sports hernia first started bothering him in the Nebraska game at midseason. He played on rather than complain.
“I just tried to fight through the season, and when I got back here [after Christmas break] it kept hurting, so I talked to the coaches, I got an MRI and I found out,” he said.
A surgical procedure repaired it just over four weeks ago. But during spring practice, as a starter the past two seasons, Shazier wanted to lend leadership to a rather young defensive unit.
“It’s real frustrating,” Shazier said. “Sometimes in the back of your head you think it’s a blessing because you’re not practicing. But to be honest, it’s frustrating, because you see all your guys out here grinding, working hard, doing tough workouts, and all you can do is watch.”
Shazier won’t be missing anything the next 12 days.With Ohio State on the semester system this school year, spring break will be next week. The football team staged its first two practices on Tuesday and Thursday, and it won’t have on-field drills again until March 19, headed toward the spring game on April 13 in Cincinnati’s Paul Brown Stadium.
Meyer said the Buckeyes will have about four hours of meetings today before taking the break.
Sophomore Joshua Perry looks more the part of an outside linebacker than last year when he played on special teams and as a defensive sub. That’s because the 6-foot-4 Perry said he now weighs 243 pounds, up 23 from when he arrived at Ohio State in late 2012. Perry said the gain was because of “everything; coach Mick’s program is the best in the nation,” referring to the weightlifting, conditioning and nutrition programs set up by Mickey Marotti, assistant athletic director for football sports performance.
“You eat, you go hard, you do what he tells you, and then your body changes,” Perry said. “That’s about it.”
Sophomore linebacker Camren Williams is one who has benefited, also. He said his weight is at 232, about 10 pounds heavier than last year.