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Ohio State Football: Buckeyes' Linebacker Unit Could Trigger Defensive Dominance

David Regimbal@davidreg412Featured ColumnistAugust 7, 2015

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01:  Darron Lee #43 celebrates teammate Steve Miller #88 of the Ohio State Buckeyes after scoring a 41 yard interception return from Blake Sims #6 of the Alabama Crimson Tide in the third quarter during the All State Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

It was late in the fourth quarter of Ohio State's matchup against Indiana in 2012 when Urban Meyer looked at the scoreboard to confirm his defense had just given up 49 points to an eventual eight-loss Hoosiers team.

It was an embarrassing performance for the Buckeyes, who survived a late Indiana rally to secure a 52-49 victory.

"We were exposed,” Meyer said after the game, according to Kyle Rowland of Eleven Warriors. “Spread offenses right now are really exposing us. We have got to get something fixed."

The biggest issue in need of repair?

That was the linebacker unit, which was short on depth and even shorter on talent. During the week leading up to that matchup with the Hoosiers, Meyer and the coaching staff moved fullback Zach Boren to middle linebacker because of a lack of production.

"When you take your starting fullback and start him at inside linebacker, you have a little problem," Meyer added, via Rowland. "I don't think you can pinpoint one thing right now. I have got to find out. I am going to increase my involvement with the defense."

That was a long and drawn-out process. A year later, at the tail end of the 2013 season, the unit was still Ohio State's weakest link.

"The linebacker position is still my biggest concern on our team," Meyer said in November 2013, according to Austin Ward of ESPN.com. "The depth is a major concern."

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But after two years of futility, things started to turn for the Buckeyes during their championship run in 2014. And with three very talented linebackers in the starting lineup and loads of depth behind them this fall, Meyer could have his first dominant defensive unit since taking over in Columbus.

It starts with Joshua Perry, the senior outside linebacker who led the team with 124 total tackles and 73 solo tackles a season ago. But the 6'4", 254-pound standout brings more than just production to the field—he's also expected to be one of the team leaders.

He showcased his leadership while speaking at Big Ten media days in Chicago last week, and that quality will be invaluable to the Buckeyes this year.

Joshua Perry will be one of the defensive leaders this season.
Joshua Perry will be one of the defensive leaders this season.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Darron Lee will occupy the other side and build off his breakout redshirt freshman campaign.

The 6'2", 235-pound wrecking ball came to Columbus as an underrated 3-star prospect who projected as a safety, but he bulked up in Ohio State's strength program and moved to linebacker.

After beating out higher-rated players for the starting job last year, Lee emerged as one of the most disruptive defenders in the country. He ranked second on the team (behind Joey Bosa) with 16.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, showcasing a speed off the edge that proved problematic for opposing offenses.

But the biggest bump should come in the middle as super sophomore Raekwon McMillan takes over as the full-time starter.

Raekwon McMillan could be Ohio State's next great middle linebacker.
Raekwon McMillan could be Ohio State's next great middle linebacker.Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images

As a true freshman a season ago, McMillan shared time with Curtis Grant and thrived, notching 54 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and an interception that he returned for a touchdown against Maryland. But even though the former 5-star prospect has yet to make his first start for the Buckeyes, McMillan's ceiling is very high, and proof of that comes from his inclusion on the initial 2015 Butkus Award watch list.

That trio should thrive in a defense that's expected to grow in 2015.

The Buckeyes, running the simplified scheme that co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash installed a season ago, should make a big leap, and the talented linebackers will be a big part of that.

“Last year was different. As a defense, we were establishing our culture," Lee said during spring practice, according to Steve Helwagen of 247Sports. "Right now, it is a lot more fun and we’re getting better.”

And if Meyer can pair a dominant defense with his already explosive offense, Ohio State's path toand throughthe College Football Playoff could be clean and clear.

All recruiting information via 247Sports.

David Regimbal is the Ohio State football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @davidreg412.

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