Linebackers Know They're Under Microscope

That a school like Ohio State -- home of some of the greats like Chris Spielman, Randy Gradishar and A.J. Hawk -- had trouble finding enough linebackers to put on the field a season ago was a surprise, but those players know they'll be counted on for a bounceback year in 2014.

National Signing Day is all about the future, but Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer couldn't help but look at the past at his Feb. 5 press conference when introducing the Buckeyes' class of 2014.

"The emphasis is on linebacker," the head coach said. "There are some obvious strengths and weaknesses but the linebacker position is one that's – we're going through an overhaul right now."

Ohio State, of course, brought in four linebackers in the class of '14, all of whom ranked among the top 10 at their position. But only one of those – Georgia native Raekwon McMillan – is enrolled early while the Buckeyes go about making big changes to the back seven this spring under Luke Fickell and Chris Ash.

So for those linebackers who are in camp this spring – a group that includes one senior in Curtis Grant as well as a number of other players trying to assert themselves when it comes to a spot in the starting lineup – the mandate to get better from Meyer has been heard loud and clear.

"He's concerned, but we're going to take that as a challenge and stick together and work together," Grant said. "(We're going to) get in here and work on the stuff we need to work on and become better."

That will include a healthy dose of competition. Though the Buckeyes return Grant – who was the starting middle linebacker a season ago before injuries to his back and ankle mounted late in the season – and junior strongside linebacker Joshua Perry, who was fourth on the team with 64 tackles, no spots are assured as the team goes through spring.

"Oh yeah, always," Grant said when asked if he felt it was open competition in the room. "Spring competition – we got good guys in the room. There's always competition, and if you don't come out here and approach it like that, you'll lose your job."

The biggest hole that must be filled from a season ago comes at the weakside linebacker spot, where Ryan Shazier left a year early for the NFL draft after leading the Big Ten with 143 tackles and placing second all-time at OSU in single-season tackles for loss.

Manning the No. 1 spot on the first day was Darron Lee, who is currently classified as a sophomore but could get his remaining year of eligibility returned after playing in just two games last year before suffering an injury. Now up to near 230 pounds, Lee has the size and athleticism to play the spot in the words of Meyer.

Backing him up to this point is sophomore Trey Johnson, a highly touted get in the 2013 recruiting class for the Buckeyes. Johnson made 11 tackles in six games a season ago after being a four-star prospect out of Lawrenceville (Ga.) Central Gwinnett.

Things really appear to be clogged in the middle, though, where Grant and junior Camren Williams have been sharing time with the first unit. Grant is coming off a 52-tackle season that included 2½ sacks but struggles while playing in space, while Williams was deputized when Grant was banged up and finished with 15 tackles, including 10 in his first start vs. Illinois while battling his own hamstring injury.

The two will receive a push from behind, though, in the form of McMillan – who has already turned heads – as well as walk-on Joe Burger, who played in five games a season ago.

At the strongside spot, Perry has started camp as the No. 1 option after making 64 stops a season ago as a sophomore and playing well at times, though he like the rest of the linebackers will need to step up his game in pass coverage. Behind him through two practices is redshirt freshman Chris Worley, a Cleveland Glenville product with excellent athleticism and a reputation for bringing the wood.

"It's different without Ryan," Williams admitted. "He was kind of our leader, our rally guy, but it's really fun getting a hold of Raekwon and all the young guys, and Darron and Trey are back after a full season. It's really fun to go through. It's going well."

There will be 13 more practices in spring once everyone returns from this week's spring break, and the linebackers know that they have to keep getting better while working under intense watch from the coaching staff.

"I think it helps us get better," Williams said. "If nobody has high expectations for us, I don't think we would grind as hard and I don't think we would focus as hard. I think it's a good thing really that everybody is focusing on us and everybody is expecting us to be where Ohio State linebackers are supposed to be."

More talent will be added to the bunch when five-star prospect Sam Hubbard and four-stars Kyle Berger and Dante Booker – Ohio's Mr. Football – are added to the mix in the summer, but for right now, the Buckeyes have the crew they have.

This is a coaching staff that has often maintained that the depth chart is set in spring, and that's the way they are approaching this year's 15 practices as well.

"You're always anxious, but you can't start looking down the road," Fickell said. "We have 13 more practices that we have to get a lot better at. That's what's probably going to be the foundation of who we are. We're not waiting to get those guys in here, we're going to worry about the guys we have right now."

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