"Even looking back at last year, we probably should have done a lot more rotation," Fickell said at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center after the conclusion of another spring practice session.
That he did not substitute more liberally is understandable considering getting Austin Spitler, Brian Rolle or Etienne Sabino on the field more would have meant taking playing time away from established starters James Laurinaitis, Marcus Freeman and Ross Homan, but Tuesday night he sounded like a coach wishing he had been able to strike just a bit more of a balance between the stars and the up-and-comers.
"In the long run, I think it would have helped if we could see them in games, but this year I think (rotations are) going to be more evident," Fickell said. "Again, when you get into the game, everybody likes to get themselves into a groove and not roll in and out, but in the long run I think that's what's going to happen with this group. I think it's going to give a lot more opportunities to a lot of people, too."
With three-year starters Laurinaitis and Freeman both preparing for the NFL draft and Homan out most of the spring with a bad hamstring, Fickell had plenty of time to take closer looks at those players he saw too little of last season, and he sounded happy with the results so far.
"Guys are competing and fighting for spots and doing a good job," he said. "They're learning a lot, but all in all I think they're handling the so-to-speak inexperience with a great attitude."
Who plays where this fall remains up in the air, however.
This spring with Homan injured, Spitler, Rolle and Sabino have gotten the lion's share of repetitions with the starting base defense while Tyler Moeller, Andrew Sweat, Storm Klein and Tony Jackson have filled in behind them.
Spitler, the No. 2 middle linebacker during all three of Laurinaitis' All-America seasons, is back for one last go round and practicing at strongside linebacker ("Sam") in the base defense and middle linebacker (or "Mike") in both the base and nickel packages, where the Sam leaves the field in favor of a fifth defensive back.
Rolle, a junior most often cited by teammates asked to name the most impressive player of the spring, reps at Mike and "Will" (weakside), while Sabino, a highly regarded sophomore, is attempting to settle in at Mike after attempting to balance the learning of that position and Sam early in spring ball.
In five-defensive-back alignments, Spitler and Rolle have generally gotten the first call with Sabino also rotating in.
Meanwhile, Moeller continues to contribute both on the strong side as a linebacker in the base defense and as a hybrid linebacker-safety called the Star in the nickel defense.
As a fourth-year junior, Moeller's experience helps him keep pace at two different positions a bit more effectively than Sabino.
"It's not a completely different position for me, so I transition well with it," Moeller said.
"Tyler's doing a great job," Fickell said. "He's another one of those guys who shows up all the time. There are going to be spots for him and he's going to take them and do a great job with them. He's another year matured. He can do some different things just because he understands a little bit more now. He's a little bit more under control and he's got a lot of potential."
Homan, who enrolled early in 2006, returned to practice in a limited capacity Tuesday for the first time since tweaking his left hamstring on the first day of Spring practice. He expressed frustration with not being able to take the field much this spring to take the leadership reins left by Laurinaitis but remained upbeat about the progress of the linebacking group as a whole.
"Coach Fickell has been challenging us every practice to come out and be physical and be fast, and everyone has been flying around in practice," Homan said. "I think that's the most important thing."
He continues to concentrate on playing Will but is open to a move if necessary, similar to how Freeman switched from Will to Sam last fall to make room for Homan in the starting lineup.
"Anything can happen," Homan said. "(Defensive coordinator Jim) Heacock and Coach Fickell want to get the best players on the field."
"They all are trying to find their niche," Fickell said. "That's probably the biggest thing with all these guys. Nobody's going to come in and just do the things that James did as a vocal leader, the guy out here doing all the interviews and things, but they know that, so they've got a good attitude. They're keeping their mouths shut and they're trying to earn a spot."