While Ohio State's linebackers enter the upcoming season with questions to answer, one of those is certainly not Ryan Shazier. One of the best – if not the best – defenders in the Big Ten last season, Shazier has made an impressive impact in his first two collegiate seasons.
Last year, the then-sophomore led the conference with 17 tackles for loss, ranked second with 115 stops and found his name listed in the top 10 of three other defensive statistical categories among Big Ten players. Shazier was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media but lost out to Penn State's Michael Mauti for the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award.
Is he already among the best during the Fickell era? The coach thinks Shazier still has work to do.
"Things have come pretty quick for Ryan, pretty natural and pretty easy," Fickell said. "But with the abilities that he has and the expectations we have for him, and I have for him, he's got a long way to go. That's what I keep telling him.
"I compare him to some of those ones I've had the fortune of coaching here, and I'm going to continue to push him to be that kind of guy and get that much better."
Fickell added that Shazier could eventually rank among the best linebackers that Ohio State has produced.
"He's got unbelievable talent," Fickell said. "Every guy that I've had the fortune to coach and the ones that have been really good have been different. There are some guys that were the best this or the best that, and the one thing I can say about Ryan is he has the ability to be one of those guys that can make more plays than anybody we've had."
Shazier agreed that he has room to improve in his first years at Ohio State. When it comes to getting better, the 6-2, 222-pound junior is focusing on the little things.
"I'm going up and down right now," he said. "There are a lot of fundamental things I need to work on now and I have to focus on being a great leader, too. So if I start focusing on my fundamentals more and just play and have fun, I feel like I could play better."
When one talks to Shazier long enough, however, one learns that perhaps his play is not where he wants to make his biggest improvement this fall. He wants to emerge as not only a leader among the linebackers but for the team as a whole.
Shazier watched and learned last year as Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren, two of the main senior leaders of that season's undefeated Buckeyes, guided and molded the linebackers. Sabino had been a fixture in the linebackers' meeting room for five years, while Boren only spent half a season on defense. Even so, Shazier learned much about leading men from both – especially in dealing with different players with divergent personalities.
"There are some guys you have to talk to one way and some you have to talk to another way," Shazier said. "Everyone is different."
Shazier is the most experienced linebacker on the roster – by far. He has started 15 games in his first two years, 12 more than the only other LB with starting experience – middle linebacker Curtis Grant. Shazier is more of a lead-by-example type of player, according to Fickell, but has the ability to lead men.
"He's a charismatic guy, and the thing for Ryan is just sometimes it's just best when your actions speak louder than your words. You don't always have to say things.
"But Ryan has that ability to make others around him better because he has that giant heart. I think that's one of those great qualities in a leader that people don't talk about all the time. He has an opportunity to (be a great leader). His actions will speak."
If one needs proof of that, check out freshman Mike Mitchell. The newcomer from Texas is not a weakside linebacker like Shazier, but when Mitchell was watching the first team defense during preseason practices, he found himself watching No. 10.
"He's a really smart linebacker, so I try to watch him during meetings and during practice to learn as much as I can from him," Mitchell said.
Whether it is with his play or with his words away from the field, Shazier will continue to be the center of attention among the linebackers and on Ohio State's defense.