Fickell Discusses Shake-Up On LB Depth Chart

There has been a good deal of speculation regarding the depth chart at linebacker this season for Ohio State. On Thursday, linebackers coach Luke Fickell shed some light on how the Buckeyes might line up when the season starts in a little more than two weeks. The big news is that sophomore James Laurinaitis is now starting in the middle.

After months of wondering who would be Ohio State's starting middle linebacker in 2006, linebackers coach Luke Fickell might have answered the question on Thursday.

"Right now, if we went out there, we would probably line up (James) Laurinaitis in the middle," Fickell said. "(Marcus) Freeman is on the strongside and John Kerr is on the weakside."

Kerr was listed as the starting MLB heading into preseason camp, but Fickell says Laurinaitis has been lining up there since camp began.

"It wasn't listed like that at the start, but ever since we've been in camp we started Laurinaitis off in the middle," Fickell said. "He's the guy that lines us up and is out in front of the huddle and calling the things. He's a little bit ahead of his time since he's just a true sophomore, but he played in two really big games last year (Michigan and Notre Dame) and got a lot of experience."

The 6-3, 244-pound Laurinaitis is a smart player and gives the Buckeyes a physical presence in the middle.

"He does," Fickell said. "He gives us size he gives us some of those things that (Anthony) Schlegel had. The ability to set everything for us, to make the adjustments we need and control the huddle. He's got a real presence."

But although Freeman, Laurinaitis and Kerr are currently running with the first-team, Fickell says it's still early and several players are still in the mix for starting and top reserve spots.

"We've got six or seven guys that are competing for those spots and we're just trying to move guys around," Fickell said. "We're trying to find the best fit, most competitive guys we've got, and like I tell them daily, we're trying to move ourselves around and find the best 11 on the defense, let alone the best three at linebacker."

Unfortunately, the news is not positive on senior linebacker Mike D'Andrea. No one is completely writing him off, but his status for the season is still uncertain.

"Yeah, I think so," Fickell said. "He's had some good days and he's had some bad days. You can't feel anything but hurt for that guy. He's trying everything he can, but either way he has a big part on this team. I sat down with him last night and said, ‘You have a big part and you are more important than you believe. Not just on this team, but in this room and this linebacker group.' We need some things whether he's on the field or not out of him."

If he can't play, D'Andrea will basically be an extra linebacker coach.

"He's been here for five years and he knows what we're doing and what we're trying to do," Fickell said. "He's seen people be successful in what we're doing and if he was healthy it would be him doing it. We need his leadership and we need his experience because those guys respect him."

Fickell was asked point-blank if he thinks D'Andrea will be able to contribute on the field for the Buckeyes this season.

"I don't know yet," he said. "It's still up in the air. He will contribute. You might not see it. The media might not see it and the people on TV watching might not see it, but I know I see it and I know the guys in our meetings room see it and feel it and that's all that matters."

Even with the three starters penciled in, Fickell thinks OSU will use a rotation at linebacker, at least early in the season.

"Yeah, we will," he said. "Because everybody needs the opportunity to play and show what they can do. Like I said, when there's not a true A or a true B, or a true one and a true two, then they all need to go. And hopefully by the first few games you can see who has been able to set themselves above and who has done the things they need to do and when it comes time for the game they produce and make the plays."

Junior linebacker Larry Grant was the national junior college defensive player of the year at City College of San Francisco in 2005. He is battling for a spot on OSU's defense and Fickell says he will definitely play a lot this year. Right now, Grant looks very good physically, but is still getting the mental side of big-time Division I football down.

"Yeah, just like any of these guys," Fickell said. "They can be 21, 22 years old, or 19, but they're still young. They are young in a sense that they haven't played a whole lot of football here at Ohio State. So, all of them have the abilities, some a little bit more than others, but ability only takes you half way. They are all learning the system and we have to do some things different with the system to give them opportunities to show and express what they can do."

Fickell also commented on Kerr and what attributes he brings to the table for the Buckeyes.

"John has done a great job for us," Fickell said. "He's the one guy out there that no matter what time of camp it is – middle of the week, last day – he's competing and he's fighting and he's really going. He's done a great job for us in that sense. He's the one guy who has truly been in this league and played more snaps than any guys we've got. It might have been his freshman year at Indiana, but that means a lot to us and we know we're going to need that kind of leadership."

As Fickell said, the depth chart is subject to change between now and the first game of the season. But he gave reporters an idea of how things stand with the opener a little more than two weeks away.

"We've got some guys who have been out of practice and maybe haven't been doing as much," Fickell said. "But right now behind Laurinaitis would be Larry Grant playing some at the middle. And behind Marcus Freeman would be Curtis Terry playing some strongside. But two days ago if you would have asked me Larry Grant would have been on the outside with Marcus, and Curtis Terry would have been inside with Laurinaitis. So, we're still trying to find that mix and that best fit.

"Kerr has been the guy at Will and Tyler Moeller, a true freshman kid, has been playing that Will linebacker because Ross Homan hasn't been practicing a lot (due to a hamstring injury)."

Moeller was expected to redshirt this year so he could add some weight and muscle. But it's going to be difficult keeping the high-energy Cincinnati Colerain product off the field.

"He's someone you notice at practice," Fickell said. "He might not know exactly where he's going or what he's supposed to be doing, but by the time the ball comes to the line of scrimmage, he seems to be there. You can't hide those kind of guys.

"He's probably only 210, 211 pounds right now. But there are some people that can handle it and some people who can't and I don't think size is going to matter with him."

Homan was the talk of spring practice and even drew comparisons to A.J. Hawk. He is probably going to play a lot of football for the Buckeyes this season – and could even slide into that starting weakside spot at some point – but right now he's battling a hamstring injury.

"Missing time, obviously it's going to hurt anybody," Fickell said. "But you've got to be smart too and that's kind of that fine line trying to decide what's the smartest thing to do with him. He's an intelligent kid and a competitive kid and he does a good job when he's not in there of doing what he needs to do. So, I'm hoping that that carries over a lot."

Fickell was asked if the Buckeyes would consider redshirting Homan, Moeller or Thaddeus Gibson.

"You would think one would redshirt," Fickell said. "Maybe two, but maybe just one. It's still too early to tell. Injuries dictate a lot of things, so we'll have to figure that out in a couple weeks."

But freshman linebacker Mark Johnson will most likely redshirt due to a shoulder injury.

"Yeah," Fickell said. "Right now with his injury he would be a pretty sure redshirt."

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