As the Buckeyes worked to establish a team identity, the coaching staff frequently talked about the necessity of rotating players in and out of the game for a variety of reasons. Doing so early would help keep all the players fresh later in the season. It also provided some of the younger members of the team a chance to get their collective feet wet in early, non-conference contests.
One position that has seen liberal substitution is the linebacker corps. While junior James Laurinaitis and senior Larry Grant appear to have locked up two of the three starting spots in the base defense, the third spot has remained in a more constant state of flux.
That is, until sophomore Ross Homan suffered an undisclosed lower leg injury that has kept him from lining up at linebacker for either of the last two games. With Homan sidelined, junior Marcus Freeman – who has started all five games this season at the weakside linebacker spot – took full advantage of the opportunity.
In weeks four and five combined, Freeman recorded 14 tackles, 11 of which came on the road against Minnesota. For his efforts against the Golden Gophers, Freeman was named the team's defensive player of the week.
"He continues to get better and better the more he gets to play," head coach Jim Tressel said of Freeman.
Later, the 6-2, 236-pound Freeman said that while he was glad to be getting more playing time in Homan's absence, he was obviously not happy his teammate was battling through an injury.
"I think just being out on the field, it just gives you more opportunities to make more plays, and that's a big thing: just being out there and having more chances to make big plays," he said. "That's something that has happened these past couple of weeks."
Freeman said that each week his grades on the field have been improving. It is no coincidence that as they have, his on-field production has picked up. Freeman's 11 tackles against Minnesota falls just short of doubling his previous season-high: six tackles recorded in week two against Akron. It also marks the second-highest one-game total in his OSU career.
Whether Freeman can maintain the same productivity when Homan returns the lineup remains to be seen – especially if the two split reps as closely as they had been early during the season.
"I think being out there every series, you do get into a rhythm," Freeman said. "You keep going and when it's every other series, I think you get in a rhythm, you maybe stop a little bit. If it helps the team, it's something that you need to do. You can't really worry about how personally you feel, but as a team how it's helping."
As the Buckeyes were preparing for the Zips in week two, linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the two would need to continue to rotate to benefit the team.
"You hate to take a guy out, but maybe every other series, maybe every other third," Fickell said. "I don't know. It just depends as guys mature and get a better grasp of the game and for the scheme. Right now they both need to play."
The desire to get multiple players playing time at the same position is hardly unique to the linebacker spot, however. At tight end, junior Rory Nicol and sophomore Jake Ballard are both listed as starters.
Nicol has seven catches for 38 yards, while Ballard has three for 41. To help them feel more comfortable on the field, the Buckeyes have altered the rotation between the two as the season has progressed.
Where the two would rotate in on a play-by-play basis early on, Nicol said they now are rotating on a series-by-series basis.
"If I'm in with the ‘Y,' he'll come in when we go to the silver packages and vice-versa when we go the next series," he said. "It is weird to go maybe be in a game for two plays and then you're out. I think it's helped us both."
Rotating in and out of the game is something that often requires a player to put aside his own pride for the good of the team. Sophomore defensive end Doug Worthington said the coaching staff preaches that mentality from the team.
"Some guys need to be out there because that's what they do, that's their thing, but I feel that if somebody's playing better than me or I need a blow or something, then I need to come off the field," he said. "But every great player wants to be on the field at all times, but sometimes you need that break, you need that rest to play at an Ohio State, silver bullets tempo."
To keep ready at all times, Worthington said he stands on the sideline with his helmet in his hand, at the ready. While the notes he takes mentally while watching are beneficial, he said there is a difference between learning and actually performing when the whistle blows.
In fact, the communications major likened it to being in the classroom.
"It's just like math," he said. "You can see a problem the math teacher does on the board, then when you do it yourself it gives you that better help when you're doing it yourself but you need to see it first to be able to do it. It goes hand in hand."