As the position coach of Ohio State's linebackers – annually the position group that might have the deepest treasure of talent on the Buckeye squad – Fickell is tasked with explaining to his younger charges that the move from star high schooler to redshirted college player isn't all that unusual.
"I try to tell them it's not about where you start but where you finish," Fickell said. "That's hard for young guys and hard for guys in that recruiting process and it's hard for freshmen when they get here."
A year ago, that meant little playing time for true freshmen Jordan Whiting, Storm Klein and Dorian Bell. All were among the top 20 linebackers at their positions coming out of high school – with Whiting earning three stars, Klein four and Bell only one of three members of the entire class with five – but Klein was the only to see action.
The Newark (Ohio) Licking Valley product finished the year with 10 tackles mostly on special teams, a far cry from the more than 250 tackles for which the trio combined during their senior prep seasons.
Luckily for Fickell, he has two pretty good deputies to deliver the message of patience at the moment in starters Brian Rolle and Ross Homan. Rolle was stuck behind such players as James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman while playing mostly on special teams during his first two seasons of '07 and '08, and despite seeing time as a freshman in 2006 Homan dealt with competition and injury during his opening years.
"You tell them that their time will come," said Homan, who led the Buckeyes with 108 tackles during his first year as a full-time starter in 2009. "Just to keep moving forward and keep learning. They come from high school where they are Mr. Everything and come into a big program like this. You need to sit them down and tell them to keep working and don't get frustrated and it will come to you."
Rolle relayed a similar tale when talking about what advice he gives the younger players.
"Ross and I may be out playing 60 plays a game, and you may not play, but in practice if you're working hard with every rep you get, when your time comes you're going to feel comfortable in the role that the coaches have for you," said Rolle, who was second behind Homan with 94 stops last year in his first year as a starter. "So next year you get a guy like Jordan Whiting or Dorian Bell comes in and he's playing hard, you know that guy did the small things when he wasn't out playing."
That was a message Rolle had to deliver to Bell a season ago after the five-star linebacker arrived from Monroeville (Pa.) Gateway. Some expected Bell to play right away, and he told BuckeyeSports.com he hoped to enter the starting lineup. However, Klein got a head-start by enrolling early and ended up as the only freshman to play last year while Rolle, Homan and senior Austin Spitler – another player who had to wait his turn – started.
But even though Rolle was ahead of Bell on the depth chart, he did what he could to keep the youngster's head up.
"I know when he first got here, the first games, he didn't even play," Rolle said. "He was kind of down about it and I told him, ‘Your time will come. You can go anywhere else in the country and you can start and you're really not going to be that great because you just go in and play. You don't know what it means to work hard.' Looking at my situation, I came in and didn't start my first two years, and I had to sit out and wait my turn. I told him, ‘You can do the same thing and you can still be great.' "
So far in spring practice, it turns out that Rolle might be right. Bell is working with the second team as the No. 2 weakside linebacker behind Homan, while Klein is backing up Rolle in the middle. One injury or blowout could propel each onto the field, while Fickell has noticed the progress of all three of his youngsters.
"Jordan is doing a good job," Fickell said. "He has still has a little ways of consistently being a guy to flash all the time. Dorian Bell has done a good job as a guy who is trying to learn the system, but when it comes down to just playing football he flashes a lot. Those are probably two of the guys, (and) obviously Storm is doing a good job too."
Fickell added that the most important trait each can bring to the table is consistency, which should come as the players earn more and more reps. The result in the end should be playing time, at which point Rolle said Whiting, Klein and Bell will realize for sure that patience was indeed a virtue.
"Most definitely," Rolle said. "I tell guys being a two-year starter is great for me. Coming here and being a four-year starter, that would be great. But God gave me two years, I'm going to make the best of those."