Ryan Shazier's intimidation factor: off the charts. - USA TODAY Sports
Another point of emphasis this off-season for Urban Meyer and his defensive staff was the linebacking corps, which includes one stud potential future first-rounder – and a lot of question marks. Here's how the depth chart looks heading towards the 2013 season.
Despite the 12-0 record last year, Ohio State still had some major holes. The linebacking corps of 2012 was depleted by injuries, setbacks, recruiting mistakes, and at times, seemingly just a plain old lack of talent. One of the major issues Urban Meyer sought to rectify during the 2012-2013 offseason was that very same linebacker position. As the old saying goes, "Rome wasn't built in a day, but a five-star recruiting class sure helps." Meyer and his defensive staff of the 2013 linebacking corps in an effort to foster competition, and therefore, a high level of play, within the group.
Only one spot is set in stone: that's junior Ryan Shazier, who is expected to be the heart and soul of the defense as well as its leader from the Will position. The other two spots – middle linebacker and strong side linebacker – are up for grabs, and it's really anyone's guess at this point as to who will come up with the wherewithal necessary to claim the positions as their own. Let's start with the veterans who have something to prove, and then we'll get to the newbies who want to show they belong.
We hardly need to say anything about Ryan Shazier, really. This video is bound to make you forget football season is as far away as it is. Shazier has first-round talent and hits with a force as terrifying to his opponents as his on the field intense demeanor. In the words of the immortal Spencer Hall, Shazier is a "very, very mean person." He still has the occasional mental lapse during games however, but should keep getting better and better. His instincts are not quite where they ought to be at least in terms of the NFL, but another year of experience will help with this. Shazier is the star of this group and an every-down linebacker. We may not see him for a while this spring due to a sports hernia, but rest assured, he'll be chomping at the bit to bring car crash force to the opposition come September.
Possibly the most important position on the field from a defensive perspective is the Mike linebacker. The MLB's job is to not only bring stability to a defense, but to make calls, read the formation of the offense pre-snap, and get everyone in the correct position. Last year, there was no one to do this until Zach Boren was forced out of desperation to make the switch. Boren filled in admirably, and did not miss many tackles, but did not combine that knowledge of the position with the physical talent necessary to play the position at a level expected at Ohio State. That expectation falls currently on the shoulders of rising junior Curtis Grant.
We all know Grant's story – a former five-star all-everything recruit out of Virginia, he was expected to produce right away. But a pinched nerve cut short his freshman season, and as a sophomore, in his own words, he got "complacent" and not only failed to hold on to a possible starting position but was beaten out by a fullback (albeit, a very versatile fullback) when it became his chance to earn the spot. If things get incredibly bleak, Shazier may be moved to MLB if Grant can't pick up the calls but plays well enough and shows that he's comfortable enough to fly around and get to the ball (don't bet on this). This season represents Grant's last real chance as a Buckeye. If he performs well, the Silver Bullet defense will be back to its old self. If not, to quote Urban Meyer, "we're in trouble."
The Sam, or strongside linebacker spot, is currently being manned by Joshua Perry. With Ohio State increasingly using a "Star" position instead of an extra linebacker, this position is being de-emphasized as the Buckeyes play an increasing amount of snaps in a "strong nickel" formation. However, against strong running teams such as Penn State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Ohio State will be very likely to use Perry at the third linebacker spot – if he can hold on to his job.
Urban Meyer complimented some of the backup linebackers last week during their first week of spring practices. Sophomores Luke Roberts and David Perkins (who's filling in for Shazier during his absence due to injury) earned some praise and both look to compete with Perry for playing time. If Grant can't earn his spot, sophomore Camren Williams is most likely the next man up. Williams is an interesting name we didn't see a ton in 2012 but is strongly pushing for playing time and has earned some shout outs from the coaching staff during practice
With Jamal Marcus' move to the Leo (drop defensive end) spot behind Noah Spence, the rest of the linebacking corps has even less experienced depth than before. Joe Burger and Craig Fada make up the rest of the backups, with their ceiling most likely being special teams. As mentioned, even a freshman or two doesn't break out, we might be looking at even more and more of the Star position being leveraged.
Not forgotten in all this shuffle are the two outstanding linebacker recruits in the 2013 class. Mike Mitchell, an elite athlete and potential star from Plano, Texas, and Trey Johnson, a physical specimen from Lawrenceville, Georgia, will push every single veteran for playing time. These two have the physical ability and unteachable instincts to play right away. If they are able to learn the defense even remotely quickly, it's definitely not out of the question that they crack the two-deep.
The linebackers for 2013 have a lot to prove – not only to themselves, but to the coaching staff and the Big Ten. With a lack of clearly defined starters, the position battles should bring out the best in all of these players. The non-competitors will be weeded out, and the veterans will have to watch their backs for the young, up-and-coming stars. The battles for playing time at linebacker will be some of the most intense as well as most interesting to keep an eye on during spring football and beyond.