With just a few days remaining before the team begins its spring practices on March 4, the Ohio State Buckeyes are entering a pivotal moment under coach Urban Meyer. The first two seasons were respectable, but the losses to Michigan State and Clemson revealed the work needed before the championships are won.
The next six weeks are about laying the foundation for stage two in Meyer’s tenure at Ohio State. He must develop a legitimate backup quarterback, find his workhorse running back, reload the offensive line and shape a defensive identity. If he pulls it off, this team will be ready to dominate.
From day one, Meyer outlined his formula for success—play hard, play relentless, recruit the best athletes and surround them with great coaches, all principles discussed in a 2011 interview with ASAP Sports.
With three outstanding recruiting classes under his belt, the roster is now stocked with elite-level talent. Coupled with the hiring of co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and defensive line coach Larry Johnson, the pieces appear to be in place to complete the transformation he described in his first press conference.
With so much to fix in the spring, choosing which position needs the most work is difficult. Braxton Miller needs a great offensive line and a durable running back to be effective, a quality backup quarterback is a must considering Miller’s tendency to get injured and the secondary was a mess last year. Even with these needs, the most important unit to address in spring practice is linebacker.
With Ryan Shazier off to the NFL and Mike Mitchell likely transferring, depth at linebacker continues to be a major concern. Starters Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry return, along with backups Trey Johnson, Cam Williams and Joe Burger. Few would consider this a plus. Meyer said as much in a February 5 press conference,
The linebacker position is one that we’re going through an overhaul right now. Far too many mistakes have been made, either lack of development or whatever. It’s just not where we need to be.
It’s no secret that linebacker is a sacred position at Ohio State, and lately the players have failed to meet the standards. The pressure is on co-defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to get this unit back on top where it belongs.
Grant and Perry both have a slight edge based on experience, but it would be a mistake to say either has a lock on starting next fall. It would be a gamble, but don’t be surprised if Fickell completely revamps this unit. His job may depend on it.
Not since 2002 has a group of freshman linebackers entered Ohio State with such high expectations. How well this group will compare to A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter remains to be seen. Meyer told reporters it won’t take long to find out.
“I'm putting pressure on them, Coach Fickell and myself to get ready for next year. They have to play for us.”
The Buckeyes may need the new guys to play this season, but can the freshmen earn it? Here’s a preview.
Raekwon McMillan (6’3”, 242 lbs) already has the size needed to be an every-down linebacker in the Big Ten. The 5-star from Hinesville, Ga., just needs a little time to learn the system. It helps that he is already enrolled and will go through spring practices. Like Andy Katzenmoyer in 1996, McMillan is on the field from day one if his play exceeds the hype.
McMillan understands it won’t be easy to get on the field as a freshman, but he is definitely up for the challenge. As he said in a press conference on national signing day on February 5:
Coach Meyer, he always tells us that he wants incoming freshmen to play early. He wants us not to sit back and relax and wait for the next guy to leave out. But to practice every day like you’re competing for a job and attack every drill like it’s your last drill…I know that nothing is given at Ohio State and I have to come in and work just like everybody else.
Grant won’t give up his spot easily so the battle to win the position should be fierce. However, that's good because the competition will either push Grant to achieve the expectations everyone had of him four years ago or McMillan will prove that he has what it takes to be the next great middle linebacker at Ohio State.
Like Hawk, Sam Hubbard (6’6, 225 lbs) was just a 3-star prospect by Rivals. Despite the low rating, he is a unique player with tremendous potential. At Cincinnati Moeller played both strong-side linebacker and safety while helping lead the team to back-to-back Division I state championships. He was also a standout lacrosse player with a scholarship offer to play at Notre Dame. He is an incredible athlete.
Hubbard’s size and mobility will give the coaches a hybrid linebacker who can be effective in stopping the run and covering receivers on the edges which was a major problem last year. If he is able to adjust to the speed of the game and bulk up a little, Hubbard has a reasonable chance at playing this season.
Looking at Dante Booker (6’3”, 210 lbs), it would be easy to conclude that he needs to gain weight and get stronger before he realistically sees the field on a consistent basis. Don’t count on it. His speed (4.52 in 40-yard dash) may be too enticing to keep him on the sidelines.
Recent history also suggests that Booker could make an immediate impact. He is built like Shazier was when he started as a true freshman in 2011. Booker’s a tough kid who demonstrated good instincts and sound tackling ability in high school. If this continues in fall camp, Fickell will put him on the field.
Kyle Berger (6’2”, 200 lbs) is the true long shot out of the group. Beyond his need to gain weight, the Cleveland St. Ignatius product is also recovering from an ACL injury that he sustained last August. A redshirt is probably the sensible way to manage Berger, but there’s a chance he could see action by the end of the season if he’s healthy.
The transition from high school to college is never easy, especially for linebackers. Freshman rarely get playing time, let alone start. These are no ordinary times, though. The defense likely derailed a championship season last year which is probably why Meyer told reporters in his February 5 press conference:
“I'm going to be more involved than I ever have been, just to make sure that we get up to standard at Ohio State on defense side of the ball with emphasis in pass defense.”
With this in mind, the starters this year will be McMillan, Perry and Hubbard. Johnson and Grant will be the key reserves, and Booker will fill in as needed. Risky? Sure. But Meyer isn't going to let this unit remain substandard any longer.