"I'm the middle linebacker and I'm in the middle of some of the best athletes in the nation. I got two safeties that are going to play in the NFL, two cornerbacks that are definitely going to be some of the top draft picks, my whole D line is going to go and the guys right beside me are NFL caliber linebackers."
There aren't many differences when comparing the 2014 and 2015 Ohio State teams - at least, not when looking at the defensive side of the ball. The Buckeyes' defense this season has played at the same level as last season's national championship-winning team, but unfortunately weren't able to replicate the same success on the offensive side of the ball. With so much NFL-level talent departing from the roster after this season, the defense was primed for another championship run, but couldn't overcome the struggles from the offense. As middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan points out, there's no shortage of excellent playmakers on the defensive side of the ball at Ohio State.
With one final game against Notre Dame, Joey Bosa, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Darron Lee and the rest of the star-studded defense could see their last game in an Ohio State uniform, depending on whether they elect to declare for the draft. Though they might not have achieved their goals from the start of the season, the defense provided Ohio State with consistency all season long and will get one more chance at a great performance in the Fiesta Bowl.
"I think our performance has been reflective of the entire team's performance. Sometimes we looked really good, other times we don't look so good. We played really well at the end of the year last year, but there's such a big gap. I think that's because we were 100 percent on the same page with Coach (Ed) Warinner and how he's gonna call plays and what he's gonna do."
It took a while longer than last season, but Ohio State's offensive line seems to be peaking. If the Buckeyes were in the College Football Playoff for the second straight year, it would be considered peaking at just the right time. The team won't get that opportunity this time around, missing the playoff by a couple of spots. Instead, the offensive line can use their marked improvement against a feisty Fiesta Bowl matchup in Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were on the outside looking in when the rankings came out as well, and will be looking to upset Ohio State on Jan. 1.
Led by offensive tackle Taylor Decker, the offensive line struggled mightily early on in the season. Their play fluctuated, and much like Decker mentioned above, it greatly impacted what the final outcome was in games this season. When Ohio State seemed lulled into a haze on offense, instead of imposing their will, the offensive line struggled to provide enough protection to allow time for both Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett to make a play. But after an excellent performance against rival Michigan, the Buckeyes are looking to end this season with an exclamation point against Notre Dame.
"Like maybe [those highlight plays] were going to separate me or something. Who makes the bigger plays instead of just who runs the offense? I was coming off the injury, too, so it was like, I've got to do something to get me back, I don't know, put some spice in my life or something."
Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett had some noteworthy quotes during his time speaking with the media in preparation for the Fiesta Bowl this Friday. As Barrett has mentioned before, his play during the start of the season was less than stellar, even saying that it wasn't as if he deserved the starting spot at quarterback over Cardale Jones at the time. Which makes sense, given that some had thought Barrett might get the nod early on in the quarterback battle. So when Barrett said that a lot of times early on during the year that he was often looking for the home-run plays in hopes of gaining an edge in the quarterback battle, some things begin to make sense as to why it seemed like the Buckeyes were so inconsistent on offense for much of the season.
Once Barrett pulled back a little and just ran the offense as he had become accustomed to doing in 2014, Ohio State started to look more like the championship winning team from last season. Unfortunately it came in the Buckeyes' final game against Michigan, when the damage to Ohio State's College Football Playoff dreams was already done. Still, with Barrett not having to look over his shoulder for the starting job, the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame should provide the sophomore quarterback with a great chance of boosting confidence and setting himself up nicely heading into the 2016 season.
"The unique thing is that a lot of times, the thing you're looking for at linebacker is if you can find a guy that can truly be recruited as a tailback."
When Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell was asked about all of the great linebackers that he's coached in his time with the Buckeyes and what the key was to finding such talented players, Fickell gave an entertaining response (shown above). Fickell's logic is sound, though, as players such as Ryan Shazier, A.J. Hawk, James Laurinaitis, Darron Lee, etc. have all not only been great linebackers, but also great athletes. It makes sense that Fickell would be keen on drafting outstanding athletes as linebackers, regardless of whether that was their main position in high school or not.
The versatility and speed that comes with being both a running back and a linebacker can sometimes blend together nicely if the player is willing to work and embrace being a defensive player as opposed to their normal running back position. After all, Darron Lee himself didn't play linebacker in high school, and was in fact a quarterback and safety for New Albany. A three-star as a dual-threat quarterback and safety, Lee has quickly become a legitimate star at outside linebacker, alongside Raekwon McMillan and Joshua Perry.