As spring practice reaches a midpoint and begins to wind down around Big Ten country, now is a perfect time to take a look at some of the position battles that will be critical to winning a Big Ten championship this autumn.
To start this series, let's begin with the defending Leaders Division champion Ohio State and the Buckeyes' most important hole to fill in 2014.
That would be the linebacker slot.
Just two years ago, Urban Meyer and his defensive staff decided at midseason to convert fullback Zach Boren to linebacker to fill the gaping hole in the middle of the defense. Last year Ohio State played primarily a nickel defense to avoid having to put a third linebacker on the field for most plays.
And now, all-conference star and leader of the defense Ryan Shazier has left for the NFL. Shazier racked up 144 tackles in 2013 to go with 115 in 2012, great numbers even for the playmaking Will (weak-side) linebacker role.
That production does not just replace itself, especially when the Buckeyes struggled to find any other consistent performer over the past two seasons. In addition, new defensive coordinator Chris Ash plans to have the Buckeyes play much more of a base defense with three linebackers on the field rather than the nickel formation used frequently in the past two seasons.
No proven options and three regular spots to fill in the middle of the defense. Sounds like a recipe for disaster.
So how will the Buckeyes address this important concern and return to conference-title contention? Let's take a look.
Perry played significant time in 2013 at the Sam (strong side) and Mike (middle) linebacker spots and racked up 64 tackles, trailing only Shazier in the linebacker crew. However, his larger frame and size (6'4" and 250 pounds) is not ideal for covering the faster tight ends and slot receivers.
Indeed, having Perry in this role perhaps was part of the reason Ohio State was forced to play so much nickel defense last season. Thus, the rising junior has moved his talents over to compete for the Will linebacker spot in spring practice, and reports say that he is winning the new job.
That's exactly what the Buckeyes need from one of the few upperclassmen leaders at this position.
Grant came into Columbus three years ago with so much potential, but his lack of quick development as a star has been a primary reason the Buckeyes have been so thin at this position. That being said, Grant finally showed signs of respectable play when he split time with Perry at the Mike and Sam positions in 2013.
Grant is similar in size to Perry (6'3" and 240 pounds) and ended up with almost as many tackles, netting 52 in the 2013 season. Especially with Perry's move to the weak side, expect Grant to solidify his role as a senior, assuming he can hold off some of the young talent Urban Meyer has brought in recently.
Still, it's long overdue for Curtis Grant to become the superstar he was recruited to be. Having competition for his starting spot may be exactly what he needs to step up his effort and his ability.
It's almost impossible to consider two players who contributed less than 20 tackles last season as serious "Returning Contributors," so that is why Williams and his 15 tackles end up leading this list. Williams saw only limited playing time with only two linebackers on the field, but he should expect much more opportunity with the base defense being revived in Columbus.
Williams comes into his junior year with a smaller frame (two inches shorter and about 15-20 pounds lighter than Curtis Grant and incoming freshman Raekwon McMillan) than his other competition for the Mike linebacker spot. That could actually play in his favor, as he will offer a change of pace that may sometimes be needed against more wide-open attacks.
Johnson was likely the most heralded of the three linebacker recruits who came in last season in Meyer's first full recruiting season. However, Johnson dealt with some nagging injuries and was the primary backup as Will linebacker, which was basically mop-up duty behind Shazier.
Despite the limited game reps, Johnson seemed to be the logical choice to take over on the weak side after Shazier left for the pros. However, taking Joshua Perry and his larger frame over to that position looks likely to force Johnson to remain a backup as a rising sophomore. Still, he is probably the most promising of the backups, which means he should see more significant playing time in 2014.
While Johnson and Mike Mitchell earned all the highest accolades in last year's recruiting class, Darron Lee just worked away in practice and put forth strong effort. Indeed, his willingness to go hard for four-to-six seconds in last year's late-fall practices and this year's spring practice has caught the attention of Urban Meyer.
As a result, while Mitchell transfers somewhere else and Johnson struggles to win out his job over an upperclassman, Lee has found himself as a leading contender for the starting Sam linebacker spot. At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Lee has a good hybrid frame to cover larger tight ends just as well as most slot receivers. Effort makes talent go a long way, and Lee clearly has it (even though he played quarterback in high school).
McMillan is a true freshman who enrolled early to participate in these spring drills. That could prove to be a very wise decision, as one of the crown jewels of the 2014 recruiting class appears ready to play right now. Urban Meyer has repeatedly referred to this freshman's maturity, noting that he looks like an upperclassman at times.
McMillan comes in at 6'2" and 240 pounds, but he may actually become a bit trimmer in this first full season of college. He is being groomed as a future leader of the defensive unit and will likely only see time as the Mike linebacker.
Another player seeing significant practice time in the spring is redshirt freshman Worley. He was officially listed as a safety with his 218-pound frame last season, but the need for good hybrid-cover linebackers makes Worley a good fit to be used more at the Sam linebacker spot in 2014.
Worley has also earned high praise from Meyer and the coaching staff so far. That plus the lack of experienced depth for this new position means that Worley is a good bet to split some playing time with Lee at the Sam slot.
Another highly rated recruit will arrive as a true freshman at the beginning of fall camp, that being Kyle Berger. He is currently finishing up his studies to graduate high school at St. Ignatius, although you have to imagine he is also working hard to come in and compete right away at this relatively thin, unproven position.
Berger is listed at 230 pounds, which means he could compete at any of the linebacker spots. It is never a sure bet for freshmen coming in late to earn much playing time, but he will clearly be given a great opportunity to see the field in 2014.
Dante Booker Jr.
Although Booker has not earned as much publicity or comments from the coaching staff since he confirmed his commitment in the 2014 recruiting class, he was one of the better prospects from Ohio (perhaps even more highly regarded nationally than Berger).
Booker comes in with a 6'3" height and 212-pound weight, which may set him more on the path of safety or only a Sam linebacker. Unfortunately, there's plenty of competition there already, but don't count Booker out yet.
Walk-Ons and Others
Burger has seen more significant playing time as a special teams contributor, although he did add a couple of tackles in limited playing time on defense last season (one start against Illinois when Grant and Perry were injured).
Despite the great talents Meyer is bringing in at this position, Burger has proven he can compete and will continue to do so as a junior. Burger has a father, uncle and three brothers who have all played major college football, so he definitely knows what it takes to succeed at this level.
Another primarily special teams contributor in 2013 was Fada, although he also subbed in a handful of times on defense and ended up with one tackle on the ledger.
Fada is entering his redshirt sophomore season, so he has plenty of time to try and win more playing opportunities. He also wants to follow his father's footsteps and become a doctor, which means he will be willing to keep playing while continuing his long-term academic pursuits.
Nobody else is participating in spring practice in a significant way, but there are others who may contribute on a limited basis in the event of injuries or some turmoil at this position. These players include walk-ons Devan Bogard (redshirt junior, may move to defensive back), Aaron Mawhirter (sophomore), Nick Snyder (junior), and incoming true freshman Sam Hubbard.
Projected Depth Chart
In view of the above summaries and analysis, here is the best projection to date for what the depth chart at linebacker will look like going into the 2014 season.
WLB: (1) Joshua Perry, (2) Trey Johnson, (3) Joe Burger/Kyle Berger
MLB: (1) Curtis Grant, (2) Raekwon McMillan, (3) Camren Williams
SLB: (1) Darron Lee, (2) Chris Worley, (3) Dante Booker Jr.
Unlike the past two seasons, Ohio State not only has enough depth to support three regular linebacker slots on the field but also enough to survive some injuries. Unfortunately, there is no sure star for 2014 in this group, which means no new Ryan Shazier to anchor the defense. However, the defensive line is a huge strength that will take pressure off this crew to be stars.
Although at this point in spring football the depth chart is beginning to take solid shape, none of these projected starters are truly safe. That will force Perry, Grant and Lee to continue upping their game over the next few months, which should result in a better linebacker unit overall. It will at least be comparable to what the Buckeyes had in 2013 (Shazier and a lack of depth behind him).
The real key to 2014 and beyond will be how much Trey Johnson and Raekwon McMillan develop this season, as both could be important contributors in the stretch run. I also think we will see a surprise contributor (ether Burger or Berger) step up and earn decent playing time as well.
The bottom line is that Ohio State will have much more to work with even without Ryan Shazier. Despite the talent being raw and unproven, there is enough of it to think that this unit will make a leap in production like the defensive line did last season.
Which means Ohio State should remain right in the mix for a conference championship and a College Football Playoff berth, should the breaks go in the Buckeyes favor.
Thanks for reading! I am the Featured Columnist focusing on Big Ten Football for B/R.
You can follow me on Twitter, and please leave comments below regarding how you see the OSU linebacker hole being filled in 2014. Also, if you have any other team/position groups you would like to see covered in this segment please let me know.