Competition The Buzzword For Linebackers

The Ohio State linebacker group has just about everything: talent, experience, play-making skill and depth. With that in mind, linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the most important thing is for his charges to improve in spring so that he can figure out what to do with them all come the start of the season.

It wouldn't be hard to believe if a lot of coaches around the country are jealous of Luke Fickell.

The Ohio State linebackers coach doesn't have to worry too much about which players will fill his positions in 2008. Of course, Fickell has returning All-American and Butkus Award winner James Laurinaitis to lead the way, and returning along with Laurinaitis for his senior season is Big Ten second-team member Marcus Freeman.

Behind those players, he has a stable of talented backup linebackers – ranging from highly touted and experienced junior Austin Spitler to true freshmen Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat, who just arrived on campus – that includes players who would probably starting at just about any other Big Ten school.

And even his one position battle, the fight to replace graduated senior Larry Grant as the starting strongside linebacker, is being fought between a senior who has started a Michigan game in Curtis Terry and two talented youngsters in sophomores Tyler Moeller and Jermale Hines.

But that doesn't mean Fickell doesn't have a hard job, just one that's a little different from most of his brethren across the country. His battle is to encourage competition, keep everyone happy and then find spots for everyone at the position.

"We're trying to find roles and different things that we can give guys something to hang their hat on, and it's not easy," Fickell said. "We know that's the key right here in the spring and going into fall camp: who are the deserving ones and how do we work them in and in what capacity?"

Oh, and then Fickell has to fight the battle to keep some of his players actually suited up as linebackers. Walk-on Ryan Lukens has already moved to fullback full-time, while Sweat and Spitler have made cameos there. Thaddeus Gibson and Mark Johnson have moved full-time to defensive end to boost a depleted group there.

Still, the Buckeyes have 10 talented linebackers in camp looking to create some sort of niche. As Fickell alluded to, what exactly those niches will be is starting to be determined.

Throughout the past few years, the niches have been figured out just fine. Last season, Laurinaitis started at middle linebacker and was backed up by Spitler, who saw plenty of time early in the season against weaker foes and then carved out a spot as a linebacker as part of OSU's goal line set. Ross Homan and Marcus Freeman rotated series at weakside linebacker before Homan's leg injury ended his year three games in. An expected battle at the strongside spot never materialized between Grant and Terry because of Terry's season-ending ankle sprain. Spitler, Moeller, Hines and Brian Rolle all found homes on special teams.

In other words, there's no such thing as too many linebackers.

"We were just really trying to create competition," Fickell said. "There are a lot of guys, but we like to believe we can try to find ways to get them all on the field and get them all happy and see the light at the end of the tunnel because some of them are seniors now. You can never have enough."

Freeman, who combined with Laurinaitis to make 230 tackles last year, joked that some of the younger players were quite persistent in finding out if either would go pro and thus open up spots, but added there is no ill will between the starters and the eager backups.

"I think they're happy we're back now because we're a tight-knit group," Freeman said. "We have so many different personalities, but we're all a tight-knit group."

Spitler, who had 26 tackles and a sack last year and is now an upperclassman, concurred.

"It's great for everybody because it creates competition," he said. "It makes everyone better. The competition is the main thing, not just on the field but off the field, in the weight room, watching film – everyone is always competing to be the best."

But at least one of the guys who hasn't been out there very often will get a chance to start after Grant's departure. The odds-on favorite would have to be Terry, who saw extensive playing time in 2006 on the way to 17 tackles and a start against Michigan. Also in the fight are Moeller, a Cincinnati Colerain product who made eight tackles last year, and Hines, who had three stops.

"They're all pretty much rolling through and are three guys that we have that can do some different things," Fickell said. "It comes down to how much nickel you play, how much base you play and who your 11 best players are."

And for everyone else, spring is just about competing and getting better.

"Spring's all about coming out here and having fun," Spitler said. "It's not a tense experience like camp where you have a game coming up. It's more a learning process for the younger guys and for everybody as a whole to get better and create competition."

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