We continue our look inside the cupboard of the 2009 Ohio State squad in an effort to determine positions of strength and others that need a little work. We will take a look at these units again after spring and fall practice, but right now this constitutes our best guess as to what will follow.
We started the defensive review at the front, both in terms of line of scrimmage and returning, proven talent. Now we turn our focus to an annual position of strength for the Buckeyes - linebackers. For the first time since 2003, the Buckeyes do not have a star linebacker to build around. With the way Tressel has been recruiting these days no one truly believes this will be a position of weakness for OSU, but there are few that are expecting status quo.
Coming & Goings: The Buckeyes only lost two starting linebackers but the problem is that they lined up in an aggressive Nickel package for the majority of 2008 with an extra defensive back (often Jermale Hines). Realistically speaking, OSU loses the majority of its snaps at LB. And, even if you consider Ross Homan - often only a starter on paper - a key returner, you surely recognize that his contributions were few and far between. Again, that is as attributable to the defensive schemes played as anything but it does not diminish the fact that Heacock and Fickell have to come up with a totally new and cohesive linebacking unit in one offseason. Ohio State has not had that task in front of them for a long time.
The job of completing that task falls to a sizable group of underclassmen. In fact, the only senior heading into the fall is Austin Spitler. The remaining linebacker corp is comprised of three juniors, three sophomores, and four freshman. That adds up to an unpredictable and hungry group trying out for that middle level.
Hitting the High Notes: This is totally unfounded but I view the younger group as faster and hard-hitting bunch. I base that judgment mostly on wishful thinking and Sabino's hellbent sprints on special teams. But for the first time in many years, there is true competition at this position and the unit is stacked with 4-star recruits dying to get on the field. That has to produce good results.
Also, if the Ohio State website is to be believed (and we know how reliable college measurables are), not one returning linebacker is as big as Freeman and Laurinaitis. I never viewed those two departing seniors as great blitzing linebackers so perhaps the newbies will be more potent by virtue of their (smaller) size and speed. Again, wishful thinking.
Problem Spots: Uh, what was I saying about youth and experience. Considering the wealth of talent recruited to this position over the past three seasons, it is hard to say the Buckeyes are in trouble with a straight face but, relatively speaking, this is a weak spot. This is not to say they will not develop into a solid, playmaking group by November, but the learning curve only puts more pressure on the front four.
Smart Money: Judging from last season when the Bucks had two All-Big Ten caliber linebackers, I think it is a safe bet that Heacock will play only two most of the time while the defense resides in the Nickel. It seems like Homan is a good bet to be on the field for most snaps, but he was not a third down guy last season and I would be surprised if he grew into one during the offseason. On paper, Spitler is the front-runner for the MLB but Sabino seems to be the insider pick for that job. That means that Brian Rolle and Tyler Moeller will compete for the other "starting" position.
Best Case Scenario: Because the defensive line is going to be such a strength it would be nice if the coaches played the most talented linebackers regardless of experience. But that is unlikely to happen. What I am hoping for, however, is that one of the freshman shines early on and joins Sabino to create a solid linebacker corp for the next three years. I know Spitler, Moeller, and Homan have waited their turn, but I would lying if I said I did not want to see Dorrian Bell and the other newcomers getting significant playing time right away.
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