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Buckeye Heroes: The Golden Age of Linebackers

For a decade Ohio State was linebacker university with three all-world linebackers patrolling the sidelines.

Minnesota Vikings v Green Bay Packers Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about Ohio State heroes. Whether they are the biggest names in Buckeye athletic history or underappreciated icons; perhaps even players who made major impacts off the field. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Buckeye Heroes” articles here.

From 2003-2013 Ohio State had three of the best linebackers in program history roaming the sidelines for the Silver Bullets. AJ Hawk commanded the middle of the defense from 2003-2005, and was immediately followed by James Laurinaitis from 2006-2008. In 2012 Ryan Shazier burst into the scenes, leading the Silver Bullets from 2012-2013.

Together in eight seasons as starting linebackers for the Buckeyes, they combined for 992 tackles, 102 tackles for loss, 36.5 sacks, 11 forced fumbles, and 15 interceptions. For a decade the Silver Bullets had a game-changing linebacker rewriting the history books.

A Dominant Decade for Linebackers

Player Year Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks Forced Fumbles Interception
Player Year Tackles Tackles for loss Sacks Forced Fumbles Interception
AJ Hawk 2003 106 13 4 0 2
AJ Hawk 2004 141 8 1 1 2
AJ Hawk 2005 121 16.5 9.5 2 1
James Laurinaitis 2006 115 8.5 1 3 5
James Laurinaitis 2007 121 8.5 5 0 2
James Laurinaitis 2008 130 7 4 1 2
Ryan Shazier 2012 115 17 5 0 1
Ryan Shazier 2013 143 23.5 7 4 0

AJ Hawk

Hawk, according to Laurinitis, is on the Ohio State linebacking Mount Rushmore. Hawk led the Silver Bullets from 2003-2005 as a dominant force who struck fear in his opponents. Hawk finished his career with 394 tackles — the most by any linebacker after 1992.

When you look at the Ohio State defensive record books, you’ll notice that most of the record holders played in the 70s and 80s. The 2000s were the beginning of the end for offenses who relied on multiple tight ends and a bevy of running backs. Since 2000, every year the passing game has become more and more valuable, and yet Hawk was able to replicate some of the dominance from the 70s, solidifying himself as the best linebacker of the last 23 years.

Hawk is 2x All-American and 3x All Big Ten. In 2005 he won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, as well as the Lombardi Award and the Jack Lambert Trophy. In 2005 Hawk totaled 141 tackles which are tied for 14th all-time with “Pepper” Johnson and Tom Consineau. There are 16 players listed in the Ohio State record book, due to ties, and Hawk’s 141 are the 2nd highest total by anyone who played after the 80s.

Despite all the great linebackers in Ohio State history, there have only been two players who have totaled more than 140 tackles in a season between 1987 when Chris Spielman had 156 tackles, following the 1986 season when he has 205.

Hawk was taken with the fifth pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, it’s unimaginable for a team to take a linebacker that high in the NFL Draft anymore. Hawk spent 11 seasons in the NFL, nine with the Green Bay Packers. He has over 900 career tackles in the NFL and helped Green Bay win Super Bowl XLV.

Hawk currently is a member of the Pat McAfee Show, and he is well known through the sports world for leading the Green Bay defense. While not a major contributor, Hawk was also on the 2002 National Championship Team. AJ Hawk is one of the greatest linebackers in Ohio State history.

James Laurinaitis

James Laurinatis, or Coach Laurinatis, as he decided to grab a whistle and join the coaching staff, is a future College Football Hall of Famer. If the College Football Hall of Fame weren’t a joke, he would probably already be in, but no one really knows the criteria or the voting process for the Hall. Laurinaitis finished his Ohio State with 375 tackles, or an average of 125 per year for his three seasons as the starting middle linebacker.

He left Columbus for the NFL Draft as one of the most decorated players in Ohio State history. He finished his career a 3x Consensus All-American, 3x First Team All Big Ten, and 2x Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. In all three seasons as a starter, he won postseason awards, winning the Bronko Nargurski Trophy in 2006, Butkus Award in 2007, and the Lott Trophy in 2007.

Laurinaitis was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft, spending eight seasons in the NFL and racking up over 800 career tackles. Laurinaitis was a tackling machine, with him in your starting lineup you were guaranteed a middle linebacker who opponents would have to game plan for. He was an annual 100+ tackles per year and a leader of the defense.

Laurinaitis was the quintessential linebacker, now he’s tasked with reviving a stagnant linebacker room which had been a weakness for the past couple of seasons until 2022. Laurinaitis returned at the perfect time, as he gets the chance to coach Tommy Eichenberg, a throwback middle linebacker who reminds me of his coach.

Ryan Shazier

Shazier was the last in a line of dominant linebackers. It’s a tough act to follow legends like Hawk and Laurinits, who made 100 tackle seasons seem regular. In the three seasons between Laurinitis leaving and Shazier taking the reigns, Ross Homan had 108 tackles, but in 2010 and 2011 the leader tackler only had 76 and 75 tackles respectively.

In 2012, Shazier took over the reins. In his first season as a starter, he totaled 115 tackles. In 2013, he became the second linebacker since Chris Speilman in the 1980s to have over 140 tackles in a season. Shazier finished 2012 with 143 tackles, which is tied for the 12th-highest season in Ohio State history. That season solidified Shazier as a Buckeye legend, as he had 101 solo tackles which are the 3rd most solo tackles in a season. He’s also tied with Tom Cousineau for 1st place with 16 solo tackles in a game.

Shazier is 14th all-time with 315 total tackles in his career. He is a 2x All-American, 2x All Big Ten, and was named on the 2nd team Big Ten All-Decade team. Shazier was drafted with the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft and was an instant contributor for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was voted to the 2016 and 2017 Pro Bowl teams before his career was cut short due to a catastrophic injury that left him paralyzed in 2017. He finished his NFL career with 299 tackles, and is one of the biggest what-ifs in the NFL as he was entering his prime and becoming the dominant linebacker he showed at Ohio State.

Shazier is walking now, and although he will never play football again, he is a major inspiration for players and fans. Shazier ended one of the most dominant decades in modern-day Ohio State History. We may never see a run of talented linebackers as we saw from 2003-2013 in AJ Hawk, James Laurinaitis, and Ryan Shazier.