A pair of juniors, Air Force transfer Anthony Schlegel and former prep All-American Mike D'Andrea, have gone toe-to-toe this fall for that starting job. It was a race that has been almost too close to call. Schlegel started for the defense in last Saturday's jersey scrimmage, if that means anything. The starter for the UC game may not be decided, actually, until the defense takes the field to open the game.
"Both of those guys are out there looking good, performing up to the best of their abilities," said senior outside linebacker Thomas Matthews, one of many interested spectators. "That will be for the coaches to decide. It's good because we have so much competition. When you get in there, you have to fight just as hard."
Of course, that battle is emblematic of depth and talent the Buckeyes possess between the three linebacker positions. Strongside linebacker A.J. Hawk, a junior, returns after earning first-team All-Big Ten honors last year. He is the preseason pick for the Big Ten defensive player of the year award.
On the other side, junior Bobby Carpenter steps in at the weakside linebacker spot to replace departed starter Robert Reynolds. Working behind Hawk and Carpenter outside are Matthews as well as redshirt freshman Curt Lukens and true freshman Marcus Freeman. It is an embarrassment of riches for first-year linebackers coach Luke Fickell.
"This camp was a lot of fun," Hawk said. "We have so many linebackers who got in there and had a chance to play with Marcus Freeman, Schlegel, D'Andrea, Bobby, myself, Thomas Matthews and Curt Lukens. I think the coaches believe they can put anyone in there and have confidence in them."
Some have labeled OSU's linebacker corps as the best in the Big Ten, if not the country.
"On paper, it looks good," Hawk said. "But we have to go out and live up to the hype. Iowa has great linebackers, too. We'll have to see how we do."
Carpenter added, "We have the most experience of any position group on the team. Anthony has started before, I have played, A.J. started all year and Mike has played. We enjoy having the pressure on us. I chose this school on the tradition of the linebackers. We are all comfortable together and we play off one another."
D'Andrea, a native of Avon Lake, Ohio, was supposed to step in right away at Ohio State. But it has not worked out that way.
"No offense to people in the media, but I have long since dismissed all of the Internet recruiting and magazines," Carpenter said of the hype that surrounded D‘Andrea. "College is an entirely different game. A lot of it is getting opportunities. Mike was behind Matt (Wilhelm), who was an All-American. Last year, he hurt his shoulder.
"When he came in here, he wasn't ready to play. Now, he's ready to play. He had a great camp. I didn't think it would be that close, but Mike showed me a lot."
D'Andrea suffered a shoulder injury that cost him the final three games last year. Prior to that, he split time with then-senior Fred Pagac Jr. in the middle.
"I first hurt my labrum in the fourth week against Northwestern," he said. "It kept getting weaker. Then, during the Michigan State game I came down on a kickoff and was trying to make a play and I blew everything out, the ligaments and tendons. I had to wait until the swelling went down at the end of November before I could have surgery.
"Before that, the last time I missed a game was my freshman year of high school. I missed a game because of my ankle."
D'Andrea also missed spring drills, allowing Schlegel the chance to put his name on the job.
"That was hard when you're supposed to be competing for something and you can't get out there and play," D'Andrea said.
But he worked hard on his rehab, got healthy, got stronger and is pushing Schlegel for that spot. Unofficially, he had four tackles, an interception and a sack in the jersey scrimmage.
"That's not a surprise because Mike D'Andrea is a pretty good player," said OSU coach Jim Tressel, one of D‘Andrea‘s biggest supporters. "That really hurt us last year at the back end of the season. He couldn't be there for the spring medically. But Mike D'Andrea makes plays. He is an outstanding player."
D'Andrea declared himself ready to go.
"I'm not having any problems with anything right now," he said. "I feel real confident and comfortable out there right now."
The knock on D'Andrea previously -- aside from the injuries -- was his inability to pick up the defense.
"Yeah," he admits, "when I first came in and even last year at times, that was a problem for me. But I've been in the system now for three years and I feel pretty good."
D'Andrea was asked if the competition was driving him.
"I'm not worried too much about that," he said. "I'm going to go out and do what I have to do. I haven't done a whole lot since I've been here. I don't know if it's really having to prove something or what. I just want to go out there and make something happen. That's what I really want to do."
D'Andrea said he respects Schlegel and everybody in the linebacker unit gets along.
"I think Anthony is a real good player," he said. "He did real good at Air Force and he's doing real good here. He's real good against the run. He's a tough physical player. I feel pretty good going against the rush and the pass. Anthony may be more of a run stop guy, but he's good overall.
"We're all friends. We get along and we joke around in the meetings. It's not like some people might think it is. We all get along."
But after a tough two years, D'Andrea said he just wants a chance to play.
"It's always nice to be a starter. Last year, I was in and out all the time. I'd rather get as many plays as I can," he said.
Schlegel, a Texas native, was an All-Mountain West linebacker at Air Force. But he decided military life was not made for him and, using his option to leave the academy after two years, transferred to OSU.
He made his mark with the scout team a year ago and showed his tackling ability in last week's scrimmage, when he notched eight tackles.
"There are certain things I've just got to get a little bit better at," he said. "If we can keep playing better, I think this defense can be pretty good."
With the days counting down to the season opener, Schlegel discussed OSU's final preparations.
"In this last week, we want to get to where everybody is perfect," he said. "The way Ohio State is fast on defense is because everybody knows what everybody else is doing. When you have that knowledge, you can play fast and let your abilities take care of the rest.
"I know we're ready to go play a game right now. We just need to work on our timing and being perfect. I think we have a chance to have a great defense when we're able to do that."
Hawk has enjoyed the spirited competition in the middle.
"Both of them have gotten a lot of reps," he said. "You can never have too much depth. Those two guys are great players. I think we'll see times when they're on the field at the same time and maybe one of them will put their hand down in the dirt and rush off the end a little bit."
A New Wrinkle?
With former linebackers coach Mark Snyder now OSU's defensive coordinator, the Buckeyes have experimented with using Schlegel and D'Andrea at the same time. The look is actually similar to last year, when rangy defensive end Will Smith would drop into coverage as a linebacker.
"That's something different we're trying," said D‘Andrea, who plays the Smith role in that set. "We're going to go with four linebackers at some points. We did some of that last year. It's just different personnel this time."
Carpenter said it's a no-brainer to have four impact players like these guys on the field at the same time.
"We have four experienced players," he said. "There is no reason why we can't get them all on the field together. It would be a change-up. We could attack and pressure all we want if we play Mike some of the time at end. If we can flip between the 4-3 and the 3-4, it gives us a totally different look."
Schlegel added, "They're just doing some stuff. It's the same package we've always run, but they're finding ways to get all four of us in at the same time."