Randy Gradishar. Tom Cousineau. Marcus Marek. Pepper Johnson. My all-time favorite Buckeye, Chris Spielman. Steve Tovar. Andy Katzenmoyer. Na'il Diggs. Matt Wilhelm. A.J. Hawk. James Laurinaitis.
Every one of these names is familiar to Ohio State fans. Every single one listed was an All-American linebacker during their career at Ohio State, spanning from the 1970s through the 2000s.
Want to guess the last year Ohio State had an All-American at linebacker? 2008, when James Laurinaitis was named for the final time in a three year period, from 2006 through 2008. Four years ago.
Now think about how Ohio State fullback Zach Boren led Ohio State in tackles versus Indiana with eight, and how Boren had not played linebacker since his senior year of high school. Ouch.
What has happened to Ohio State's proud tradition of stellar linebacker play?
Is it the coaching? Critics will point out that Luke Fickell is in charge of the linebackers, and the play of the linebackers should reflect what and how they are being coached.
On the other hand, Coach Fickell has been the linebackers coach since 2004. Yes, I know Coach Mike Vrabel coached the linebacker position last season when Coach Fickell was the interim head coach, but Fickell has been the name associated most with the linebacker coaching over the past decade. By the logic I wrote up above, that the play of the linebackers are a reflection of their coaching, Luke Fickell had a strong part in helping both A.J. Hawk and James Laurinaitis reach All-American status during their respective Ohio State careers. I am going to suggest that coaching is not the root of the problem here.
Is it the players themselves? Is Ohio State lacking talent at the position?
Think about the current players at the linebacker position. Ryan Shazier could have played anywhere in the country, as evidenced by the substantial scholarship offer list available for review. Remember how excited the Ohio State fan base was when Curtis Grant announced on Signing Day 2011 that he was going to be an Ohio State Buckeye? Like Ryan Shazier, Curtis Grant could have played for any major program in the country as well. Same for Etienne Sabino, who is presently injured but will hopefully return by the end of the season. Storm Klein is a popular scapegoat and whipping boy of the Ohio State fan base, but think about how the defense would be without Klein returning to the team after Coach Meyer reconsidered Klein's outright dismissal from the squad.
My belief is that some of these players have been playing out of position. For example, Curtis Grant has not been able to make an impact at the middle linebacker position. Supposedly, outgoing defensive coordinator Jim Heacock suggested that Curtis Grant would make a better defensive end than linebacker. Perhaps this offseason, Grant will be moved where he can make a positive impact.
What about the young linebackers signed in February? Why aren't those players making a bigger impact?
Players such as Joshua Perry, Jamal Marcus, David Perkins, Camren Williams, and Luke Roberts have all played this season. The reality is the majority of those snaps have come on special teams. While Ohio State fans have been hopeful of instant impact, it is entirely possible that those players are just not ready to play at the level needed. Considering Zach Boren was moved from fullback over to start at inside linebacker versus Indiana kind of shows that line of thinking.
Fortunately for Ohio State fans, help and hope seem to be on the short and long term horizons. Let me provide you both lines of thinking.
For the short term, Ohio State will be playing at home versus Purdue, a spread team that has defeated Ohio State two of the last three seasons. Those defeats all took place in West Lafayette, not in Columbus. Coach Meyer has stated that he will be increasing his involvement with the defense this week and beyond to get this figured out.
Long term? It is all about recruiting. Players such as Darron Lee and Tyquan Lewis have verbally committed for next year's class, with other linebacker prospects such as Mike Mitchell being listed as becoming likely Buckeyes eventually.
Can Ohio State get back to being "Linebacker U"? Perhaps not this season, but at this point, Ohio State fans would certainly prefer any improvement over "Linebacker Ew".