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Published: Wednesday, 4/29/2009

OSU's linebacker roles up for grabs

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

COLUMBUS - If you play tight end or safety at Ohio State there are certain performance expectations, but not everyone always remembers your name.

Play linebacker for the Buckeyes and the expectations increase tenfold, and there's no anonymity to be found.

Chris Spielman, A.J. Hawk, Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, Steve Tovar, Pepper Johnson and Andy Katzenmoyer have all worn the armor and patrolled the heart of the field for Ohio State. Those legendary Buckeyes still cast long shadows around Ohio Stadium.

James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman recently were added to that distinguished fraternity of OSU's former standout linebackers, and now that they have moved on to the professional ranks the Buckeyes are trying to identify the next individuals who will hold those prestigious positions.

"That happens a lot at a place like Ohio State - great players build a legacy and then leave, and somebody has to step in and fill that role," said senior Austin Spitler (6-3, 234), who looks like the front-runner to man the middle where Laurinaitis was a highly decorated fixture the past three seasons.

"You just have to be confident in your ability, and go out and make plays. Everybody knows all the names and the history here - the All-Americans who played the linebacker position - but you can't try to be them, you can't try to be somebody else. You just do everything you can to help the team win."

The recently concluded month of spring practice has accelerated the sorting-out process at linebacker. Freeman played 52 games in his career, Laurinaitis played 51. Ohio State linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the downside to relying so heavily on certain players like Laurinaitis and Freeman for several seasons is the obvious shortage of experience once they are gone.

"Looking back, we probably should have done more of a rotation last year," Fickell said. "I think it would have helped. But this year we plan on having more of a rotation. In the long run, I think that's what's going to happen with this group. There's going to be a lot more opportunities for a lot of people."

Spitler has gifted sophomore Etienne Sabino (6-3, 232) pressing him in the middle, while one outside linebacker spot is expected to be manned by junior Tyler Moeller (6-0, 216), with sophomore Tony Jackson (5-11, 227) and impressive freshman Storm Klein (6-3, 225) both in the picture.

Junior Ross Homan (6-0, 229) should start at the other outside position, with junior Brian Rolle (5-11, 221) and sophomore Andrew Sweat (6-2, 220) in the rotation. Homan is the most experienced linebacker on the team, with 30 games to his credit after starting most of the 2008 season.

"I think it's a talented group - lots of playmakers," Spitler said. "We've got guys who can really hit, and swarm to the ball on every play."

That collective aggressive posture was on display in Saturday's Scarlet and Gray spring game. Rolle had a sack among his 11 tackles. Sabino had nine tackles and Moeller had eight, with two for a loss. Moeller also tracked down tailback Marcus Williams after a 75-yard run and made a touchdown-saving stop.

The spring game gave fans their first extended look at the players who have filled primarily backup roles in the past, and manned Ohio State's special teams - with Homan being the primary exception. Other members of the Buckeyes took notice of the continually evolving picture at linebacker throughout the spring.

"I think during spring ball we saw some pretty talented players who have been working their butts off and biding their time, and now they are finally getting their chance to play," defensive tackle Todd Denlinger said. "They have been lifting and running and devoting the time to keep getting better, and now they are showing it out on the field."

Senior safety Kurt Coleman said after the spring game that he has plenty of confidence in the group playing linebacker in front of him.

"With James and Marcus gone, there's been pretty intense competition there. A lot of guys want to play and they see an opportunity," Coleman said.

"I like the way they've been flying around. There's good chemistry in there. It's a great group."

Homan, who made 67 tackles last season and had six stops behind the line of scrimmage, said that for the past three seasons it was pretty much understood that Laurinaitis and Freeman would play the majority of the time, but their departures left the depth chart wide open.

"It made things very competitive, and that can only be a positive thing for us as a defense," he said. "Guys were playing fast and physical all spring, and I think a lot of them improved. There's been an opportunity, and they've taken advantage of that."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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