COLUMBUS - Ohio State is the choice of most to win the Big Ten Conference championship this season. Of course there is an abundance of talent on this team, but that fourth straight title is expected to reside here based primarily on the experience and depth the Buckeyes possess.
Nowhere on the field is that experience more entrenched, more apparent than at linebacker, where seniors James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman are both three-year starters, both strong candidates for many postseason honors, and both likely have a solid future in the professional ranks.
"We've been fortunate to have a lot of very good linebackers during my time at Ohio State, and many great ones have played here over the years," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said about his resident head-knockers.
"Marcus and James are part of that solid tradition at linebacker, as much for the kind of people they are as for their playing ability. They are outstanding young men as well as exceptionally gifted football players."
At the same school that produced Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, Tom Cousineau and Randy Gradishar, it was just three years ago that A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter were being lauded as one of the best linebacker combinations this program had seen. Now Laurinaitis and Freeman are frequently placed in that same lofty company.
"I like the fact that people mention Marcus and I together," Laurinaitis said. "It seems like we've been friends and teammates a long time, and we know we can rely on each other. If we need to make a play and I don't get there, I'm pretty sure Marcus will."
Laurinaitis is the more decorated of the two, with All-American honors and Butkus and Nagurski awards on his mantel, and led the Buckeyes with 121 tackles last season. Freeman was second on the team with 109, and earned second-team All-Big Ten distinction.
Sophomore Ross Homan will start alongside Laurinaitis and Freeman when the Buckeyes open the 2008 season Saturday against Youngstown State. Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell has a full hand of cards to play beyond those three, with senior Curtis Terry, junior Austin Spitler, sophomores Brian Rolle and Tyler Moeller, and a pair of freshmen who were high school All-Americans in Etienne Sabino and Andrew Sweat.
"We've got a number of capable players, so the competition has been good," Fickell said. "They are all hard workers, and as a coach you like to see that. I like their attitude, and their approach. We just need to translate everything to game day, and respond well to adversity."
With Freeman and Laurinaitis out front, the Ohio State linebackers will create plenty of adversity for opposing quarterbacks and running backs. In general terms, Laurinaitis provides the physical crunch, while Freeman supplies the speed and finesse.
"Those guys are terrific players," Homan said. "For us, there is an opportunity to learn from a couple of the best - every practice, every meeting. You get a lot of confidence playing next to two players like that."
Freeman said he and Laurinaitis take their leadership responsibilities among the linebackers very seriously.
"I don't think we expect the other guys to listen to everything we say and always be looking up to us," Freeman said. "But we have been around a while, and gone through all of the ups and downs, so we have some experiences to rely on. Our obligation is to help the rest of the linebackers be as good as they can, which will only help this team reach its goals."
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