Linebackers Doing Some Shuffling This Spring

The Ohio State football team will have three new faces at its three linebacker spots in 2011. Senior-to-be Andrew Sweat returns but will move from the strongside linebacker spot, while junior Etienne Sabino appears to have the inside track to fill one of the other two positions. With a third spot still to be filled, there are plenty of questions surrounding the linebackers.

The 2011 Ohio State football team will have plenty of holes to fill defensively before opening the season Sept. 3 against Akron. Several positions will have new faces in different places, and that includes a linebacker group that will likely have new starters at its three positions.

That does not mean there will no experience at strongside (Sam), middle (Mike) or weakside (Will) linebacker. Quite the contrary. Senior Andrew Sweat was the starting strongside linebacker last season alongside middle linebacker Ross Homan and weakside starter Brian Rolle but will likely move to the Will spot this season. Junior Etienne Sabino battled Sweat for the starting Sam spot last August and also has plenty of experience as the backup in the middle for James Laurinaitis and at strongside linebacker behind Austin Spitler during his time as a Buckeye.

"Right now everybody is moving around," Sabino said of the spring rotation for the linebackers. "Everybody is just trying to learn every position, so we can all play anywhere."

Sweat is by far the most experienced linebacker returning this season. The senior rebounded from a 2009 season that was hampered by a knee injury and appeared in all but one game last season. He made 41 tackles in 12 games, including three stops for a loss.

Despite earning the No. 1 Sam linebacker spot, Sweat's playing time was limited for most of last season because he was the linebacker who came off the field when the Buckeyes went to the nickel package. He did start two games, however, when he took over the starting Will spot when Homan went down with an injury at Wisconsin. He made a season-high eight tackles in Madison with an interception, matched the tackles total the following week against Purdue added five stops in a start at Minnesota.

Sweat admitted last season to feeling more comfortable at the weakside position than at the strongside spot, and told reporters April 9 that he will not return to the strongside this fall. He has taken reps at both the weak side and middle this spring.

"I'm not sure," Sweat said of where he will play next fall. "Not Sam. It'll either be weakside linebacker or middle linebacker."

While it seems likely that Sweat will be on the weak side, no matter where he plays he will be leading the linebackers.

"It's neat because you can step up and be more vocal, be more of a leader," Sweat said of moving from the strong side. "Obviously I played Sam last year, but being on the inside you can control the communication between the defensive line and the safeties. You have a more vital role in the communication aspect."

During the three 30-minute practice windows that media was allowed to attend this spring and the full practice the media viewed on April 9, Sweat primarily worked as the top weakside linebacker. He was joined by Sabino, who took the lion's share of top reps as the middle linebacker. Sabino came to Ohio State as a five-star prospect from Miami Dr. Krop, but he has yet to become a starter. He redshirted in 2010 after losing a preseason position battle to Sweat.

Sabino appears to have the inside track in the race to replace Rolle as the starting middle linebacker, although he also seen time on the strong side this spring.

"I'm just trying to be a playmaker," Sabino said. "I just want to make plays and help this team win in any way I can. It doesn't matter where I'm at on the field. I just want to be on the field, making plays."

Walk-on Tony Jackson was in the mix to position himself as a top strongside linebacker heading into the fall during media-attended practices. The product of Columbus Westland contributed mostly as a special teams player last season, becoming a letterwinner for the first time, but is one of the most veteran players among the linebackers as a fifth-year senior.

Sophomore Dorian Bell was another player who saw time with the first unit. He primarily made up a third of the second team alongside junior Storm Klein and redshirt freshman Chad Hagan but saw time as the No. 1 weakside linebacker with Sweat in the middle and Sabino on the strong side on occasion. Hagan has also seen time at the star position, Ohio State's hybrid linebacker/safety spot the defense utilizes in its nickel package, as has walk-on Chris Maxwell.

Junior Jonathan Newsome was a player many thought would battle for a starting spot – most likely at the Sam spot – but he has been limited during much of the media-permitted practices. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel confirmed on Wednesday that Newsome has been limited not by injury but because he is in Tressel's doghouse.

"I've been known to have a doghouse, and Jonathan is in and out of it simply because we're not 100 percent sure he's been doing everything he needs to do to the best of his abilities," Tressel said. "I don't expect him to be in it long, but sometimes we have to do what we think will help a young person learn."

Newsome will have to play catchup this fall – assuming he is out of Tressel's doghouse by then – and he will have plenty of other teammates looking to position themselves higher up the depth chart. That list redshirt freshman Scott McVey, sophomore Jordan Whiting and true freshmen Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant among others.

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