This morning we continue our positional preview series with a look at the Buckeyes linebacking core.
What would the Buckeyes linebacker situation look like without Ryan Shazier? With John Simon now pursuing an NFL career with the Baltimore Ravens and Bradley Roby out for at least the season opener, Shazier not only becomes the Buckeyes’ most prolific linebacker, but also the face of their defense. After leading the Big Ten in tackles for loss in 2012 with 17, including five sacks (good for eighth in the Big Ten), Shazier appears ready to challenge for the Butkus Award in 2013.
With Curtis Grant, the second nickel linebacker on the Buckyes roster, battling injuries as the season opener approaches, it will be even more crucial that Shazier repeats the form of a season where he led the Buckeyes in tackles (115), defended 12 passes, forced three fumbles and returned a pick six. While the Buckeyes are ranked second in the nation entering this opening week, this is not the roster of that national powerhouse with so many injuries and suspensions already occurring before Game 1. While Josh Perry provides another quality option at linebacker, he’s not of the same ilk as Grant, which will limit Luke Fickell in what plays he can call if a quality replacement for Grant doesn’t emerge soon.
It’s not that the Buckeyes are totally out of linebackers. Sophomores Cam Williams and Craig Fada both figure to compete for some playing time, but neither figure to produce at the caliber of the core three of Shazier, Grant and Perry. Freshmen Mike Mitchell and Trey Johnson have apparently “hit the wall,” as described by Fickell, further drawing attention to Ohio State’s lack of depth at linebacker.
However, there may be a savior in this grab bag of underclassmen yet.
Enter Joe Burger.
Burger has quickly made a name for himself as a second-year walk-on sophomore. He’s seen time as the second nickel linebacker on the first-team in practice alongside Shazier, and while Fickell told Cleveland.com’s Doug Lesmireses that he still likes what he’s seen from Curtis Grant, he also notes that Grant hasn’t seen the field very much, and that, because of the lack of depth, “a lot of guys are going to be in the mix.”
Unfortunately, this is not what the Buckeyes envisioned when they set their sights on a 2013 National Championship run after going undefeated last season. The “competition” for playing time alongside Shazier and Perry is not due to excess talent, but more so because it’s almost nonexistent. Once-promising underclassmen have “hit the wall,” others are still learning the ropes, and upperclassmen are struggling to stay healthy.
One doesn’t have to look far to see the effect that linebackers can have on a defense, as C.J. Mosely and Mant’i Te’o both played crucial roles in getting their teams to the big dance in 2012. Let’s just hope that someone can step up.
For more in our Positional Breakdown Series: