After all, the Buckeyes said goodbye to standout Ryan Shazier – who was taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the No. 15 overall pick in the first round of the NFL draft. Shazier led the Buckeyes with 144 tackles to go with seven sacks last fall in an All-America-caliber season.
But even without Shazier, Fickell sounded downright excited about the future of the linebackers when he met with the media Aug. 6. While praising the efforts of Shazier, Fickell said his departure could be a blessing in disguise.
“Sometimes you get addition by subtraction,” Fickell said. “We’ve lost a great one, and I don’t know if you can replace the production that he had. But I tell you we have a group that has really come together.
“I say it’s addition by subtraction because we lost something big, but we’ve had a lot of guys who had the light really come on. They saw a (chance) for them to step up and do some things. ... There’s a lot of exciting things to be said about those guys. We’ve got a ways to go, but I promise that that group is going to be as strong as we’ve had in a while.”
As for taking Shazier’s spot at weakside linebacker, junior Joshua Perry appears to have the inside track. He took first-team reps at that position Aug. 6 during a practice that was open to the media. Perry, who has made 10 career starts, made 64 tackles last season as a strongside linebacker.
The 6-4, 250-pound junior has become one of several Buckeyes to undergo a physical transformation under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti.
“Josh has grown a lot,” Fickell said. “His weight is up, and what Coach Mick and those guys have done for him in the weight room has helped him grow emmencely, and it shows on the field.
“It’s just those little things. The confidence level of a kid like that and his ability to continue to play and battle through some things. There’s a lot of things that Josh has gone through and you’re going to see it – his confidence level and his leadership ability, there are a lot of things that are really exciting to not just me, but a lot of the guys around him who can see it.”
Behind Perry at the Will position Aug. 6 was freshman Dante Booker out of Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary, while sophomore Trey Johnson is expected to also battle for playing time at that spot. He was held out of scrimmaging drills Aug. 6 but did participate in linebacker position drills after beginning practice on a stationary bike.
Moving to middle linebacker, Curtis Grant is back for his senior season. Easily the most experienced member of the group, the senior made 52 tackles – including four for loss – last fall. The former five-star prospect has made 62 career tackles and has appeared in 30 games (13 starts).
Fickell said Grant is as confident as he’s ever seen the Virginia native.
“Curtis has always had the ability,” Fickell said. “The reality is when a guy is not in a good place in his mind, it’s really tough. Not to give Curtis an excuse or anything, but he’s had a lot of tough things happen. Things haven’t quite gone his way since the day he walked in here, but I tell you he’s a different kid – I shouldn’t say that, he’s a different man.
“He’s battled through a lot of things and he has a lot of confidence in what he’s doing. He’s the passion and energy of that defense right now.”
Behind Grant on Aug. 7 was freshman Raekwon McMillan. Like Grant, McMillan was a five-star prospect who came to Columbus with a lot of hype. So far, so good for the Georgia native. He enrolled early at Ohio State, participated in spring football and was one of only two freshmen to earn the right to practice with the upperclassmen on the first day of preseason preparations.
Finally, Darron Lee appears to have an early inside edge to take Perry’s old spot at strongside linebacker. The former New Albany, Ohio, quarterback appeared in only six plays over two games (San Diego State and Florida A&M) last season before garnering major praise during the spring. The 6-2, 225-pound sophomore continues to adjust to playing defense full-time, and he is currently battling freshman Chris Worley for the No. 1 Sam spot.
“He’s still learning,” Fickell said of Lee. “It’s a daily process, but we see a lot of flashes out there. That’s one of those things that’s a battle. He’s done a great job, and he’s a guy that we talked about a lot in the spring.
“But there’s a guy right behind him in Chris Worley that does a lot of great things as well.”
Fickell cited the battle for playing time at the three linebacker positions as a big reason he is eager for the season to begin Aug. 30 vs. Navy in Baltimore.
“When we’ve had a great group of linebackers, we’ve created competition,” Fickell said. “That’s why I’m so excited to come to work and be with those guys. They’re pushing each other. They care for one another, but they’re pushing each other every.”