Anchored in the middle by returning Big Ten defensive player of the year James Laurinaitis and aided by first-team all-conference outside linebacker Marcus Freeman, the Buckeyes boast two players with a combined experience of 51 games started. Those two are joined in this year's starting lineup by sophomore Ross Homan, who saw consistent playing time as a true freshman before taking a medical redshirt as a sophomore.
It figures to be the position with the fewest number of substitutions in the OSU defense – at least early on, as the secondary works with missing players due to suspension and the line rotates new players in and out.
That is bad news for players such as junior Austin Spitler, who has been stuck behind Laurinaitis on the depth chart for his entire OSU career.
"The coaches always talk about playing the best 11, and that's what they've got to do," Spitler said. "They're going to find a way, and whoever it is will be out there."
Freeman and Laurinaitis are the obvious starters. Laurinaitis led the team with 121 tackles last season, while Freeman was the runner-up with 109. The Buckeyes are missing just two starters from last season's defense and one is at linebacker where Larry Grant's vacated strong-side linebacker position will be filled by Freeman.
Well, sort of.
As a sophomore, Freeman earned 11 starts at the strong-side (Sam) linebacker spot and finished with 71 tackles in 13 games. Last season, he moved to weak-side (Will) linebacker and stayed on the field when the Buckeyes removed a linebacker from the field as they went to their nickel defense.
This year, Freeman is back to the strong-side position – but there is a catch. When the Buckeyes shift to nickel, he will remain on the field at the weak-side linebacker spot and Homan will head to the sidelines.
"It's a compliment from my coaches that they have enough faith that I can do both positions," Freeman said. "It makes you learn more, and I think it makes me a more complete player to think, ‘I can't just concentrate on what I'm doing here at Sam; I have to think about Will when I'm in nickel."
As a sophomore, Freeman saw action for 258 minutes as the strong-side linebacker. Last year, he played 294 minutes while Grant saw just 197 minutes of action – nearly a full 100 minutes less than Freeman and Laurinaitis, who had the same number of minutes under their belts in 2007.
Linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the strong-side spot is perhaps more taxing than the weak side.
"There's some things the Sam does for us that the Will probably will never do, so it's probably a little bit harder on the Will to be able to do some things the Sam does," he said. "The Sam can pretty much do anything – be on the line of scrimmage, be on the tight end, those types of things. The Will will do it at times, but not nearly as much as the Sam."
As Spitler referred to, it's all about getting the team's best 11 players on the field. That desire has led to a few linebackers still searching for roles as defensive specialists. Sophomore Tyler Moeller is the primary backup to Freeman at the strong-side position, but he also is seeing work as the team's "Star" – a hybrid linebacker/safety position utilized in the nickel defense.
In addition, former linebacker Jermale Hines now appears to be solely a safety. The trick for those two guys is to continue to show that they are deserving of having specific niches within the defense.
"We'll wait and see, but like I told some of those guys yesterday, ‘you've got to prove it a little bit more that if we're going to put you on the field we're going to take somebody else off,' " Fickell said.
Fickell said the team's second-string linebackers consist of Spitler at middle linebacker, Moeller at strong-side and sophomore Brian Rolle at weak-side.
That depth chart leaves precious little room for freshmen Andrew Sweat and Etienne Sabino – both highly regarded prospects out of high school – to break through this season. If they are to see playing time this season, Fickell said that will be determined within "the next two or three days" as camp winds down.
"Those guys are still young, and we've got an older group so we put a lot of things in," he said. "Time is going to tell in the next couple of days to see how they can fit in."