2015 – The Year of the Linebacker?

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It wasn’t long ago that the three athletes that lined up behind the defensive line accounted for the weak link of an otherwise solid Buckeye defense. Dare I even say a liability? Ryan Shazier was a rock star but he was the only Silver Bullet linebacker to be chosen in the first round since AJ Hawk and Bobby Carpenter back in 2006. Trust me, I checked.

But in case you haven’t been paying attention, times they are a changin’. Let’s take a look at what we can expect from this year’s crop of Mikes, Wills, and Sams.

The Top of the Food Chain

Two starters return to lead this group along with a blue chip sophomore that logged plenty of meaningful playing time a year ago. Darron Lee went from relative unknown to household name in 2014. He is quick to the ball, disciplined in his assignments, gets after the quarterback and has great hands to go along with it. He accounted for two interceptions and two fumble recoveries a year ago to with 7.5 sacks from the strong-side position. All of this and more have lead to Lee being named to the preseason All Big Ten First Team.

Not far behind Lee is last year’s team leader in tackles (124) Joshua Perry. Perry hits with authority and rarely misses a tackle. More of a run-stopper, Perry can be counted on to get his nose into the line of scrimmage and do the dirty work. Perry brings an intangible to this unit that Coach Meyer praises ceaselessly: leadership. The senior has had scarlet and gray running through his veins since he was lining up for Olentangy High School in his hometown of Galena. He’s listed as a preseason All Big Ten Second Team but don’t be surprised if he finishes the season even higher.

Raekwon McMillan is what Coach Meyer would call a “freak”. This true sophomore, and preseason All Big Ten Third Teamer, came out of high school with a highlight reel that would give the average scout shivers. In a backup role to Curtis Grant a year ago, McMillan made sure there was no drop-off in athleticism. He played in all fifteen games and finished eighth on the team in tackles. And he proved that he isn’t afraid of the spotlight either with a pick-six against Maryland and six tackles in games against Michigan and Wisconsin each. So have no fear Buckeye fans, losing last year’s senior starter at the middle linebacker position may actually become an upgrade for this defense.

The Second Wave

It is no secret that, since arriving in 2012, Urban Meyer has turned recruiting into an Ohio State work of art. And after a few years of building multiple top-tier classes, the result is a team full of depth at every position – the linebackers falling right into this mold. Chris Worley, a 6’2” Will linebacker from Tedd Ginn, Sr.’s Glenville football factory, personifies this perfectly. He even began last season as a starter at the weakside position against Navy before Perry surpassed him on the depth charts. If that doesn’t say enough about the redshirt sophomore, consider that he did this after switching from playing safety in high school.

Dante Booker is another monster of an athlete that has been difficult to keep off the field. As a freshman letterman a year ago, Booker earned his playing time exactly the way that Coach Meyer requires: on special teams. He improved every single week and earned himself 21 snaps against Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. If Darron Lee weren’t the man in front of him, it might be Booker’s name on Phil Steele’s All Big Ten list.

Camren Williams has a significantly different story than the other backers that have been covered thus far. This four star recruit out of Massachusetts was part of Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class back in 2012. He’s a four-time letterman and has seen more and more of the field every year. He seemed to live up to his potential back in 2013 when he started for Curtis Grant and racked up ten tackles on the road against Illinois. But since then he just hasn’t impressed the coaches enough to become one of the starting three.

Making the Leap

The only question mark among the linebacking corps may be this: who is this year’s Raekwon McMillan? Only camp will tell. But if I were a betting man I would put my money on Justin Hilliard. This five star recruit from St. Xavier in Cincinnati walked onto campus with the size of someone who has already been through Mickey Marotti’s strenuous training program. He was the number one prospect in the state of Ohio and the second ranked outside linebacker in the country.

Jerome Baker isn’t far behind Hilliard. The third ranked recruit from the Buckeye state is gifted beyond measure and even has the potential to line up at multiple positions on either side of the ball. He played running back and linebacker at Cleveland Benedictine and was recruited by both defensive coordinator Luke Fickell and since departed running back coach Stan Drayton. There’s not much of a chance that Fickell lets this kid out of his grasp, though.

Kyle Berger is yet another player that could see time in the linebacker rotation. The redshirt freshman out of St. Ignatius’ fabled football program spent last season recovering from a knee injury. At 6’2” 230 pounds and with a year under his belt to learn the playbook, Berger certainly has the mental advantage over the other freshmen. Meyer has mentioned in multiple press conferences that he needs to find time for Berger. These three should be a big part of the Piranhas special teams unit, but don’t be surprised to see them subbing in for the starters more and more frequently as the season progresses.

The Last Line of Defense

Whether they are career special-teamers, clipboard-holders, or redshirts-in-waiting, the remaining four linebackers should see limited playing time this season. Craig Fada and Joe Burger are beloved by teammates and coaches. The two seniors are are shoe-ins for the special teams units. (And if you haven’t seen their “Buckeye Cribs” video then you need to get with the times.) Nick Conner may be the odd freshman out when it comes to playing time. Even though his future is bright, you’ll likely only see him on the field in garbage time if Meyer doesn’t apply the redshirt. Jared Drake and Zach Turnure round out the group and will make their biggest impact in practice and cheering their teammates from the sideline.

Comments

  1. Melanie Brodnik says

    Great discussion, helped me better understand potential for the upcoming season and who to watch.

  2. Great job, best article I’ve read in a long long time…keep the author busy because I enjoyed every word and want to read more of his work.
    .

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