Backup LBs Can Play, Too

Ohio State's linebacking unit starring James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman might be one of the most well-known position groups in the country. While the three backups on the two-deep behind that duo and Ross Homan don't have the same star power, the versatile group is coming along in their own ways.

Playing in the shadow of James Laurinaitis has its perks – at least when it comes to dealing with the public and media, according to backup Austin Spitler.

"It's great for us actually because he gets to talk to everybody and we just kind of keep doing our own thing, being ourselves as usual," Spitler said.

The flip side of that view is that Laurinaitis earned that in-demand status thanks to the type of play on the field that Ohio State's reserve linebackers would love to be providing the Buckeyes with at the moment.

That's not to say there isn't plenty of talent at the reserve spots among the group. In fact, the linebacker corps might have the most depth of any position on the field. It sports a logjam that has pushed some of those who came before – players such as Curtis Terry, Thaddeus Gibson and walk-ons Ryan Lukens and Trever Robinson – to other position groups.

Those who have stayed boast the potential break into the lineup – if only reigning Butkus Award-winner Laurinaitis, two-year starting stalwart Marcus Freeman and talented next-big-thing Ross Homan weren't in front of them on the depth chart.

That crew is headlined by Spitler, a junior who is in his fourth year in the program. One could argue that the Bellbrook, Ohio, native could be starting at many other Big Ten schools, given how his role at Ohio State has grown over the years.

He started out as a special teams player as a redshirt freshman in 2006, making seven tackles, and continued to expand his playing time last year, serving as Laurinaitis' backup and playing in goal line situations. He compiled 26 tackles, including a sack, last season and twice topped 10 minutes of playing time in a game.

With another year of maturity, Spitler's knowledge of what's happening on the football field has continued to improve.

"I think I've grasped the defense a lot better," he said. "I think the coaches always do a great job of getting the best 11 on the field, so they're going to find a way to do that."

Serving on either side of Spitler are two players who aren't the traditional Ohio State linebackers of recent vintage. While Ohio State has become known as the home of dominating ‘backers standing over 6-feet tall and weighing 230-plus pounds – even Chris Spielman stood 6-2, 236 in 1987 – Tyler Moeller and Brian Rolle occupy slightly less space.

Moeller checks in at 6-0, 216 pounds, while Rolle is even shorter at 5-11, 221. Even with those comparatively slight physiques, reports indicate that the two bring the wood when called upon.

"They make – Brian especially – up for it in speed, and he's physical," Freeman said. "Just because me and James and Spitler are bigger than those guys, they hit just as hard or harder than us. They make up for their lack of size with quickness and speed and enthusiasm."

Rolle, especially, used his reckless abandon to make a mark on special teams last year as a true freshman. He became a fan favorite of sorts because of some big hits delivered, especially one against Northwestern in which he freed Ray Small on a punt return by leveling Wildcat David Oredugba, and finished his freshman campaign with 18 tackles.

Unlike Rolle, Moeller redshirted his first campaign in Columbus in 2006 but found special teams time last year, making a total of eight tackles.

While both Moeller, the team's backup strong-side linebacker and occasional nickel back, and Rolle, who is working on the weak side, use their speed and ever-present motors to make plays, they are also in the process of continually learning that 100 percent aggressiveness doesn't always work within the framework of a defense.

"(Rolle) needs to understand that there's a lot more structure, a lot more to it than just running around and being crazy and out of control. You can definitely see him getting better in his second year," linebackers coach Luke Fickell said. "It's the same type of thing with Moeller. The thing about Tyler, he goes hard in everything he does, 100 mph, 100 percent, and sometimes you have to be able to slow it down and understand what you're doing before you can go at that speed."

That reserve crew doesn't even take into account super freshmen Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat, who each earned acclaim in the recruiting world for excellent high school campaigns before enrolling in time for spring practice.

Though Fickell said it's too early to tell if they can crack the two-deep this year, there's always a good chance that one or both might find special teams time like so many before them.

"It's amazing to see the new athletes that come in here every year that are just, they seem to be bigger and faster and stronger," Freeman said. "It's exciting to see the future of this program and how good these young guys are going to be. Brian Rolle and Andrew Sweat and Sabino, these guys are guys that are definitely going to be the great linebackers of the future."

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