Linebacker Primary Focus For Ohio State This Spring
By Matt Natali
COLUMBUS, Ohio – It is no secret that Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was less than satisfied with the performance of his linebackers last season.
Since disappointing losses to Michigan State in the Big Ten championship and Clemson in the Orange Bowl, Meyer added co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and his assertive 4-3 defense from Arkansas to the Buckeyes staff. Meyer also signed four top linebacker prospects, including Raekwon McMillan, who was rated as the top linebacker prospect in the country for the 2014 recruiting class by several recruiting outlets.
Asked after the first spring practice about his biggest concern from a depth standpoint, Meyer simply and firmly said, "linebacker.”
In the second installment of a six-part series, we take a look at the linebacker positions for Ohio State during spring practice and examine the key losses, top returning players, key newcomers and all the pertinent information surrounding the position during preparation for the 2014 season.
Ohio State ranked ninth in the country last season against the run, allowing just 109.4 yards per game, and outside linebacker Ryan Shazier was a big part of that equation. Shazier lead Ohio State in tackles the last two seasons and his 143 total tackles in 2013 led the Big Ten, ranked third nationally and were the most by an Ohio State player in 26 years. The Associated Press named him a first-team All-American in 2013 and he was a Butkus Award finalist (nation’s top linebacker) and Bednarik award semifinalist (nation’s top defensive player). Additionally, USA Today, ESPN.com and Sports Illustrated named him to their All-American first team.
Opting to forgo his senior season at Ohio State for the NFL, Shazier finished his career ranked No. 15 in program history with 306 total tackles and ranked sixth in career solo tackles (201) and career tackles for loss (44.5).
"Playing in the NFL is something that I have been dreaming about since my days in pee-wee football," Shazier said in an official press release from Ohio State in January. "I just feel that now is the perfect time for me.
“The coaches have really helped me to grow into the player I am today. Coach Meyer, (co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell) and all of the coaches at Ohio State have been amazing. I have great relationships with them and I feel as if all of them have been there for me. I am so blessed to have had them as my coaches."
At Ohio State’s Pro Day last week, Shazier ran unofficial 4.36 and 4.38 40-times, though he may have strained his hamstring in the process. He is projected to be a mid-to-late first-round selection in the NFL Draft in May.
“He's not quite on (former Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley's) level, but he's an instinctive, athletic linebacker who will make plays all over the field,” Football.com NFL Draft Senior Editor David Seigerman said. “He'll probably be used more as a blitzer than Mosley will, though he'll need to wind up in a scheme that will take advantage of his burst and mitigate his lack of size (6-1, 230).”
Another key loss for the Ohio State linebacking corps — though he never saw the field for the Buckeyes — is redshirt freshman Mike Mitchell. It was announced last month that Mitchell, a former four-star recruit in 2013, was transferring to a school closer to his home in Texas to be closer with his family while his father suffered from an unspecified illness.
Mitchell, who was forced to redshirt last season due to an injury suffered in fall camp, had 186 tackles (32 for loss), 11 sacks and five forced fumbles during his senior season and was a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection.
Top Returning Players
Much to the surprise of most, redshirt freshman Darron Lee took the field in spring drills last week with the first unit in the position left open by Shazier.
“Darron Lee was out there playing walkout ‘backer and was impressive. He triggers,” Meyer said. “He’s just earned it. The last three weeks of fall, his offseason. He’s 225 pounds and he’s a legitimate 4.5, 4.4 guy. He’s got all the skills.
“His negative is that he played quarterback (in high school), so we’ve got to get him ready to go as a linebacker.”
Senior middle linebacker Curtis Grant has the most experience with 12 starts last season, 52 tackles (four for loss) and two pass breakups. Prior to 2013, Grant saw time in 18 games totaling 10 career tackles.
Junior outside linebacker Joshua Perry ranked fourth on the team last season with 64 tackles in 10 games. In the Orange Bowl, he recorded 10 tackles and a sack.
Junior Camren Williams saw action in all 13 games last season in a reserve role totaling 15 tackles, including 10 against Illinois.
Sophomore Trey Johnson got on the field in six games last season in a backup role and recorded 11 tackles. He was a four-star prospect coming out of Central Gwinnett High School in Georgia and was one of the top prospects in the country for the 2013 recruiting class. Johnson announced his commitment to Ohio State during the Under Armour All-American Bowl.
New Faces In New Places
In addition to McMillan (Hinesville, Ga./Liberty County), who enrolled early and is participating in spring drills, Meyer signed Kyle Berger (Cleveland/St. Ignatius), Dante Booker (Akron, Ohio/St. Vincent-St. Mary) and Sam Hubbard (Cincinnati/Archbishop Moeller). McMillan was a five-star recruit and Berger, Booker and Hubbard are four-star prospects, respectively, according to 247sports.com.
“There’s four linebackers recruited,” Meyer said on National Signing Day in February. “I'm putting pressure on them, (co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell) and myself to get ready for next year. They have to play for us, in addition to the players we have on our roster already.
"One thing that's common about all four of those guys: they're from very good high school programs," Meyer said.
McMillan was a four-year starter in high school and recorded 456 tackles and 10 forced fumbles during his career. As a senior, he tallied 159 tackles (35.5 for loss) and 8.5 sacks earning the 2013 national high school Butkus Award winner as the top linebacker in the country. He also rushed for nearly 700 yards on offense.
“I was impressed with Raekwon (McMillan) today and thought he did a really good job. Moved around well, very mature,” Meyer said after the first spring practice. “It was just a shorts practice, he did enough where it was very positive what I saw.”
Booker earned the 2013 Ohio Mr. Football award as the top player in the state and was the first defensive player to win the award since former Buckeyes linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer did it in 1995. Booker had 126 tackles (24 for loss), eight sacks and two interceptions leading St. Vincent-St. Mary to back-to-back state titles. Booker was also named the national defensive player of the year at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in January.
Hubbard had 109 tackles and five interceptions playing safety for Moeller as a senior. All five interceptions came in the Ohio big-school division playoffs and he recorded 10 tackles in the state title game, leading Moeller to its second straight championship. Hubbard also starred on the lacrosse field in high school and considered playing collegiately before committing to play football for the Buckeyes.
Berger missed his entire senior season after suffering a knee injury in a preseason scrimmage. As a junior, though, he had 105 tackles (44 for loss) and 10 sacks for the big-school power St. Ignatius. Berger also played basketball in high school.
“Kyle Berger — I can’t wait to get him here,” Meyer said following the first spring practice. “I saw him the other day and he is 230 pounds and jacked. So, those are the kind of players we want out there.”
Next week we'll take a look at the Ohio State defensive line.