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Buckeye linebackers have to step up in 2022

Could Tommy Eichenberg be the leader at the position?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl Game - Ohio State v Utah Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ohio State had plenty of defensive woes in the 2021 season. The defensive line, supposed to be a strong point, was a disappointment. The secondary, beset with injuries, often looked baffled in coverage. And the linebackers? Losing the top four backers from the previous season left the position manned with newcomers — and it showed.

How bad was the defense in 2021? Well, in total defense (measured by average yards yielded per game) the Buckeyes ranked 59th, tied for the honors with Middle Tennessee. Three of the four teams who made it to the playoffs ranked in the top 10; the other, Michigan, ranked 20th. The OSU rushing defense was better – ranked 28th – but the passing defense was awful, finishing in the 97th slot, giving up 246.2 passing yards per game. If Ohio State wants to contend for a national championship, it needs more than C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and TreVeyon Henderson. It needs a vastly improved defense.

Criticism of the defense, and of the linebackers in particular, began early last year, as Minnesota, Oregon, and Tulsa all moved the ball readily against the Bucks. There were some coaching re-assignments, and things got better for a while, but Michigan and Utah showed us that the problems weren’t all solved. Now, with experienced defensive backs and linebackers, as well as Jim Knowles as the new defensive coordinator, Ohio State again generates optimism among its fans. The Notre Dame game will let us know quickly whether that optimism is warranted.

One guy to keep an eye on heading into the 2022 season is Tommy Eichenberg.

Eichenberg’s background

Teradja Mitchell and Eichenberg both endured a lot of criticism much of the season. Cody Simon too, but not as much. We didn’t know these guys, and, to be honest, they didn’t play well. But Eichenberg had been around for several years, biding his time behind a group of veteran linebackers.

Eichenberg played his high school ball at St. Ignatius, in Cleveland, and had first committed to play at Boston College. Scouting reports lauded Eichenberg as “an explosive hitter” and touted his size (235 pounds) and his strength. There was some concern expressed about his ability to win one-on-one battles with linemen and shed blocks quickly. But, overall, recruiting gurus predicted a strong collegiate career and a middle round NFL draft spot for Eichenberg. He was the 19th-ranked inside linebacker in his class and a four-star recruit with offers from most of the other Big Ten schools. He decommitted from BC in November of 2018 and committed to the Buckeyes the following month. Eichenberg joined a 2019 recruiting class that featured Zach Harrison, Garrett Wilson, Harry Miller, and Jameson Williams.

Aside from some special teams action, Tommy Eichenberg remained largely on the OSU bench during the 2019 and 2020 seasons. He first caught my attention in the 2021 spring game, where he seemed very quick to the ball and really mobile. I wasn’t surprised, therefore, when he saw a lot of playing time when the season began.

Eichenberg in 2021

When Ohio State lost to Oregon in Columbus in the second game of last season, there was lots of blame distributed among players and coaches. Folks questioned whether Stroud should be starting, and nearly every defensive player (except maybe Denzel Burke and Ronnie Hickman) took some abuse.

We can all remember early in the season when Tommy Eichenberg would take himself out of plays with first steps in the wrong direction. We remember him getting pushed downfield by offensive guards, missing tackles, blowing pass coverage. The Buckeyes tried lots of combinations at linebacker, finally resorting to bringing Steele Chambers over from the offense to play his old high school defensive position.

As the season progressed, however, Eichenberg got better, ending up ahead of Simon and Mitchell on the depth chart. And his stats for the season weren’t too shabby. While we expect linebackers to lead a team in tackles, the team leader for the year was actually Hickman (more of a safety than linebacker), who had 100 total tackles. But Eichenberg’s 64 ranked second on the team, as did his 6.5 tackles for loss (Harrison had eight). And Eichenberg piled up these numbers playing only 431 defensive snaps, about the same as Chambers (422) and Simon (435). Chambers (47) and Mitchell (45) ranked third and fourth in total tackles for the season.

Just as the Buckeye defense was stronger against the run than against the pass generally, so too was Eichenberg, I thought. I’m sure that his pass coverage will be a point of emphasis as he prepares for the 2022 campaign.

The Rose Bowl (and beyond)

I admit that I didn’t know what to expect in the Rose Bowl. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave had opted not to play. Fair enough. But after the loss to Michigan knocked the Buckeyes out of playoff contention, the bowl game was anticlimactic — at best a consolation prize. Did the team really care if they won or lost? Not so for the Utah Utes, for whom it was a very big deal. Perhaps the biggest game in program history.

These attitudes came into play right off the bat. Utah jumped to an early 14-0 lead before the Buckeyes got on the board. The Utes were up 35-21 at the half, and it appeared as though the Buckeye defense was failing again, as they couldn’t stop the Utah attack on the ground or through the air.

There were reports of gut-check talks in the OSU locker room at halftime. Talk about humiliation, talk about pride in the program and pride in oneself. The Buckeyes were a different team in the third quarter – or at least the defense was. The offense, starting in the second quarter, was unstoppable, but Utah kept putting up points and keeping the lead. In the second half, the Bucks got stops, and outscored the Utes 27-10 to win the game 48-45.

In that second half — during the whole game actually — Tommy Eichenberg was the defensive star. He accumulated 17 total tackles (11 solo, 6 assists), the most for any Buckeye player in a single game during the 2021 season. Eichenberg largely stopped the run, and the Utah passing attack couldn’t match Stroud and company.

Just as it did for wide receiver Marvin Harrison, Jr., the Rose Bowl provided a coming out party for Eichenberg. Having seen what he can do, we now expect him to be in the middle when the Bucks square off against Notre Dame in September. But we expect much, much more from Eichenberg. We expect him to be an all-conference performer (he was academic all-conference last season), a worthy successor to a long line of Ohio State star linebackers. Granted, it’s been a few years since we’ve seen one. Maybe both Chambers and Eichenberg will rise to the occasion. If so, start making travel plans for the playoffs.