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2014 Ohio State Rewind: Linebackers
By James Vogel

COLUMBUS, Ohio — In any football defense, linebacker is the most important position.

They’re the quarterbacks of the defense, the guys who call the plays and get everyone in place in order to have the best chance of keeping the opposing offense off balance and unable to do what they want.

When you take a look back at the 2014 Ohio State defense, it’s extremely hard to look at its widespread improvement from 2013 and not give a bulk of the credit to the linebackers and unit coach Luke Fickell. After a rough 2013 campaign that had Urban Meyer constantly worrying about the depth at the spot outside of Ryan Shazier, the group performed much better this past season and was a big part of Ohio State winning the national title.

Expectations Coming Into The Season

Once we learned of Shazier’s intentions to take his 315 career tackles and first team AP All-American honors to the NFL Draft, everyone wondered who would be the guy to replace him.

Joshua Perry called what Shazier did for the defense a “crutch to lean on” prior to fall camp, noting that no matter what anyone wanted he wasn’t coming back anytime soon.

Perry grew into a stud for Luke Fickell and Urban Meyer.
Photo by Jim Davidson
 

Meyer spoke of a redshirt freshman by the name of Darron Lee during spring practice and in the early stages of fall training camp, but he was a relatively unknown to the outside world at the time.

In the summer at Big Ten Media Days, though, Meyer completely changed his opinion on the group as a whole from a year before, when he had long lamented their inconsistencies outside of Shazier.

“One of our stronger groups,” Meyer said in July. “We operate under the unit principle, and it’s the power of the unit, nine units. And the last two years they weren’t what we expect … However, it’s the best the group’s been right now and that’s just as far as chemistry as far as trust, as far as operating as a unit.”

Meyer credited the growth within the linebacker room to guys like senior Curtis Grant and Perry, the older guys at the position. Blue chip recruit Raekwon McMillan enrolled early at Ohio State looking to make an impact, with the body and mindset that he could push Grant for the starting position at the Mike linebacker spot. Perry had all but sewn up the starting spot at the Will, but with Shazier gone someone would have to take over the Sam position. That emphatically turned out to be Lee.

Alongside McMillan, Meyer signed Dante Booker and Kyle Berger and alluded to moving Sam Hubbard to linebacker from tight end before the season started.

How The Season Played Out

At long last, Grant was finally able to stay healthy for an entire season and started all 15 games in the National Championship run. Perry did too, outside the Navy game, when the Buckeyes elected to come out in the nickel package to start the game. Lee burst on the scene early and often, recovering a fumble against the Midshipmen and returning it 61 yards for Ohio State’s first touchdown of the season as well as making plenty of other big plays.

As expected, Perry tackled everything and finished with a team-high 124 tackles and three sacks. Grant had himself a fine senior campaign, recording 69 tackles and a sack while becoming the unquestioned leader of the group and mentor to McMillan. The freshman worked his way into the fold and finished with 54 tackles on the year, learning under his proclaimed “Big Brother” in Grant and gaining valuable experience. He often played more against pass-heavy teams, a decision made by Fickell because of McMillan having quicker feet than Grant. The best part about that balance? Grant happily stepped aside because it was for the good of the team.

Whenever Perry wasn’t making the tackle, it seemed like it was Lee who was driving his opponent to the turf. The guy was everywhere in 2014, fast enough to play the pass and strong enough to stop the run. Lee stepped in beautifully for Shazier, a pleasant surprise to anyone that was worried about how the group would be without the 15th pick in the NFL Draft. Many thought the redshirt freshman was cocky when he told his roommate, Joey Bosa, of his plans to step in and fill Shazier’s shoes. How silly we were.

Lee made all kinds of plays in 2014.
Photo by Dan Harker
 

“I was like, ‘Sure, buddy you are,’” Bosa said. “He was maybe 195 (pounds) coming out of high school playing quarterback and he came in here as a safety or something and he played scout team linebacker and I just didn’t believe him. All of a sudden he’s in spring and he’s killing people. He got huge, he’s a fast, physical guy and he’s going to be a special player.”

What Lee did as a freshman and former high school quarterback backed up Fickell’s decision to sign him out of New Albany High School and it paid off huge for the Buckeyes in 2014 as he earned defensive MVP honors in the Sugar Bowl.

What We Should Expect in 2015

There is no reservation in saying linebacker should again be one of if not the strongest positions at Ohio State next season.

Grant is gone and his leadership will be missed just like the other three senior captains who graduated. But McMillan played well in his brief stints during the Buckeyes run at the title and was itching to get on the field more by season’s end.

Joshua Perry morphed himself and his body to make himself an excellent player. His intelligence and leadership will be tested, but it is pretty clear the younger guys look up to him already.

Lee will have to deal with opposing teams having more film on him and thus knowing what he’s about when they play him in 2015, but that comes with the territory. He isn’t a secret anymore.

With that said, expecting anything less than what he put forth this year would not be smart because he is continuing to learn the position and has the physical attributes to wreak havoc on offenses for years to come.

Behind those guys, things get a big murky as soon to be senior Cam Williams hasn’t really lived up to his 4-star billing out of high school. He hasn’t been bad, but at times is out of position on passing downs and needs to show improvement to garner more playing time.

Berger is coming off his second ACL tear in a year, so it hard to judge where his contributions (if any) will fall in 2015. The same goes for senior Devan Bogard, who suffered another knee injury this past season, the third of his career.

Trey Johnson played sparingly in 2014, slowly becoming the forgotten man with the rise of Lee and Chris Worley, who has a similar body type to Lee.

Grant was a huge emotional leader for Ohio State this past season.
Photo by Dan Harker
 

Final Thoughts

The biggest thing for the linebackers — just like any position — will be the health of the unit.

If Perry, McMillan and Lee are able to stay healthy and pick up right where they left off against Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, next year is bright at linebacker for the Buckeyes.

The depth remains a bit of an issue, but Fickell is only losing the one guy in Grant — it’s just a matter of younger players improving and showing that they can do what they were recruited to do.

Previous Rewinds

Defensive Tackles

Defensive Ends

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