"They're working hard," the OSU defensive coordinator/linebackers coach said. "We don't have a ton of guys, so guys are going to get a lot of reps. But that's good. That's what they need."
The unit does have three players returning that saw significant playing time last season in senior Storm Klein, fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino and sophomore Ryan Shazier. Unfortunately for the Buckeyes, there isn't much experience after that trio. Sophomore Curtis Grant saw time primarily on special teams last season. Other linebackers include redshirt freshman Conner Crowell and newcomers Joshua Perry and Luke Roberts, who made up the second unit during the first practice of the spring.
Grant may be the most interesting player to watch this spring among the linebackers. The former five-star prospect from Richmond (Va.) Hermitage was the first-team middle linebacker during the first handful of spring practices thanks in part to a minor injury that has limited Klein. Grant played with Sabino on the strongside and Shazier on the weakside.
Following the first practice of the spring on Wednesday, one that was open to the media, new OSU head coach Urban Meyer singled out Grant as a key player if Ohio State is to have a successful 2012 season. Grant was frustrated at times last fall as he struggled to learn the playbook and find the field.
"He had an excellent offseason and he's a guy who has to play well for us," Meyer said. "It was his first day. He'll be fine. We have no choice. He has to be able to play for us. If he's not, we have a problem."
Fickell said he was impressed with Grant's desire to improve. He was also happy with Grant's physical transformation, one that solidified his status as a linebacker. Fickell said Grant weighed in at "probably 245 pounds" last season and is now listed at a slimmer 235.
"So he's trimmed down and wants to play linebacker," Fickell said. "We need him to play linebacker. I think it's showing in everything that he does - the way he studies, the way he takes care of his body.
"That's a good thing, not being 245. ... If he had gotten to 250, he might have put his hand on the ground (and moved to the defensive line). He went the other direction, so he can stand up (and play linebacker)."
Grant's improvement also gained the attention of his teammates.
"He's getting a lot better," Sabino said. "It's crazy how good he gets day by day. He keeps improving. I'm excited to see what he can do."
Grant will battle Klein for a starting spot at middle linebacker. Klein has been limited in practice because of a sprained knee he suffered during winter conditioning. He made 10 starts last season, most among the returning linebackers, and made 62 tackles. Still, he'll have to earn his starting spot this spring. Fickell said he hopes Klein will be full-go come Monday.
"He did a good job for some of the things we asked him to do," Fickell said of Klein's 2011 performance. "From edge to edge of the defense, I think Storm's very good at what we need him to do. When he gets outside the edge, outside the box, he's got to do a lot better a job."
Like most of the rest of the Buckeyes, Klein has also gone through a physical transformation during the winter. He is listed at 242 pounds after playing at around 250 last season, according to Fickell.
"He's really trying to take it serious and understands that this is one of his last shots," Fickell said.
Fellow senior Sabino hopes to build on the end of his 2011 season. He played well in Ohio State's 24-17 loss to Florida in the Gator Bowl, recording four tackles - including two for loss. Sabino said he wants to continue the momentum he gained against the Gators.
"I want to keep playing aggressive and keep having an impact on this defense," said Sabino, who notched 62 tackles last season and started five games.
Last among the contenders to earn a starting spot is Shazier. The sophomore had a standout freshman campaign in 2011 with 57 tackles, including a team- and season-best 15 in his first start against Penn State.
"I wasn't really surprised because I planned on doing that," Shazier said. "That's why I cam in early (as an early enrollee in Jan. 2011). I wanted to do whatever I can to help the team. I came in early, tried to gain weight and do whatever possible to help us win."
Shazier also gained weight this winter, adding 15 pounds, but adding that he does not feel like he lost any of his speed. He is listed at 6-2 and 226 pounds.
"He knows more, he understands more," Fickell said of Shazier. "He's a guy that by nature is a very confident guy. So he can make a lot of calls and do a lot of things that maybe we didn't have last year. Having another year under his belt, he has the ability to maybe take charge of that huddle maybe a little bit more."