Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and his staff are looking for a few good linebackers.
With three of the mainstays — Etienne Sabino, Zach Boren and Storm Klein — at the position from last year’s team gone, one of the top priorities during the Buckeyes’ spring workouts has been finding playmakers at the open spots.
Co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell surveyed the candidates but refrained from making any judgments after the Buckeyes’ first two practices.
“There’s a lot of good-looking players,” he said of the early returns. He added, “We hold our opinions until we get in pads and play some football.”
Asked after the opening practice on Tuesday what position concerned him the most, Meyer lumped together most of the defense.
“The front seven,” he said. “Because there’s a bunch of new guys in there.”
Ryan Shazier, the one proven commodity at linebacker, is out for at least a couple more weeks while he recovers from surgery for a sports hernia. An All-Big Ten selection last season, he started all 12 games and led the conference in tackles for a loss (17).
“I’m taking my game to the next level,” the junior said. “Coach Fickell and I have been talking about plays and what offenses can do. I need to work on staying behind the ball and watching film will help me do that more out on the field.”
Behind Shazier, however, are some intriguing possibilities but also some question marks.
Curtis Grant is one of the major enigmas on the team. An acclaimed prep star out of Richmond, Va., he saw action as a freshman and then started at the outset of last year’s sterling 12-0 season.
But then he lost the job and sank down the depth chart.
“I got too complacent,” said Grant, who started three games last year at middle linebacker. ‘’That’s the only thing I can say. I couldn’t handle the glory, I guess, of being a starter. I should have kept working harder.”
Now he’s an upperclassman and is being counted on even more to play up to his lofty blue-chip status in high school.
“All my life I’ve been a leader. Everybody always looked up to me, and it kind of got flipped coming to college,” he said. “I was looking up to someone else and I usually didn’t look up to anyone. I always wanted to get better on my own and help the other guys. But after watching other guys, when it’s your time, you feel it and you feel different. I feel like my old high school self.”
Meyer was asked if there was still a lot of focus on Grant.
“A lot,” he said. “Do we still have hope (for him)? Absolutely. Yes.”
Camren Williams, Joshua Perry, David Perkins, Luke Roberts and Conner Crowell, along with freshmen recruits Trey Johnson and Mike Mitchell, are also vying for playing time between now and the opener on Aug. 31 against Buffalo.
Williams and Perry each played in 10 games last year as freshmen and lettered.
“Everyone is going to have an opportunity to show what they can do,” said Williams, out of West Roxbury, Mass. “There’s a lot of competition at the (middle linebacker) position, and that’s a position I’m interested in. I’ve been working hard to learn the playbook and improve at the position because as the mike you need to know where everyone is and what’s going on at all times.”
Ohio State has had two practices so far, and now takes off for spring break. The workouts continue on March 19.
Fickell hasn’t spent much time considering who’s not around at linebacker. Instead, he prefers to look at who is back.
“There are a lot of guys with a lot of energy and some young guys that are really exciting,” said Fickell, in his 13th season coaching at his alma mater and ninth as a coordinator.
“We don’t rest a lot around here. If we did it might give us more time to think about the guys we lost.”