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COLUMBUS -- Etienne Sabino made the most difficult move a football player can consider. He took himself out of the game -- all of the games -- in the 2010 season.
Sabino, one of the top-rated linebackers in the country when he came to Ohio State three years ago, saw the abundance of talent at his position as the Buckeyes prepared for last season, so he chose to sit out the full year. That allowed Sabino (6-foot-4, 240) to retain two seasons of eligibility, with the expectation that he would then be a starter and carry on the rich tradition of dominant play at this key position on the OSU defense.
"It was extremely difficult," Sabino said recently about his self-imposed eternity away from live competition. Although he continued to practice with the Buckeyes, he last played for Ohio State in the Rose Bowl win over Oregon that wrapped up the 2009 season.
"I would say it was probably one of the hardest years of my life," said Sabino, whose first name is pronounced a-t-yen. "Not playing at all, when you're used to playing a lot, it was definitely a hard thing."
Sabino's talents were shelved for a year due to the logjam at the position last season, when senior starters Ross Homan and Brian Rolle both went on to win first-team All-Big Ten honors. After it became evident in the pre-season that fellow junior Andrew Sweat would beat out Sabino for the third linebacker position, the decision was made to let Sabino mature, rather than burn a full season of eligibility as a backup playing only spot duty.
Ohio State coach Jim Tressel also stressed at the time that Sabino came to the Buckeyes as a 17-year-old, and would benefit from the additional year to grow and develop.
As Ohio State works through its current spring practice in preparation for the 2011 season, Sabino is playing with the first unit on defense and demonstrating that his year "off" was well spent. He said all of the additional work was extremely beneficial and that his grasp of the assignments is much better now than it was the last time he played.
"(The extra year), it actually slows the game down for you," Sabino said. "When you're out there, you're not thinking, you're just reacting. It just helps your overall game, your overall football knowledge."
Sabino, who was first-team all-state in Florida at Miami's Dr. Krop High School, was a U.S. Army All-American as a senior. A versatile athlete, he was the district champion in the discus in track, and also lettered in basketball.
When the Buckeyes signed Sabino early in 2008, Tressel gushed over the prospect of Sabino roaming sideline to sideline in Ohio Stadium. "He's just a heck of a good football player at the linebacker position," Tressel said. "Great explosion as he hits you. Smart football player. Excellent speed."
Sabino was projected to eventually take his place among the greats who have made the position an anchor for Ohio State's vaunted defense -- James Laurinaitis, A.J. Hawk, Chris Spielman, Andy Katzenmoyer, Randy Gradishar, Tom Cousineau, Bob Brudzinski, and Pepper Johnson.
OSU defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said that with the extra year to develop, Sabino is getting his opportunity to be the dominant force the Buckeyes expected him to be.
"What happens a lot of times is, when it's your time, you step up. At Ohio State, with the tradition and the legacies, when it's your time, you don't have a choice, you've got to step up," Heacock said. "You hope he has success, and you hope he comes on and becomes that player for you."
As that young freshman in 2008, Sabino stood out on special teams, and returned a punt 20 yards for a touchdown against Purdue. As a sophomore, he played special teams again and was a backup linebacker.
Sabino and Sweat should man two of the starting linebacker posts when the Buckeyes open the 2011 season at home against Akron. The other position likely goes to Storm Klein, Dorian Bell or Curtis Grant, an incoming freshman who was the top-rated linebacker recruit in the nation.
Heacock is confident Sabino will uphold his share of the deal, and display just how much that redshirt year did to enhance his skills.
"The thing I see with Etienne right now is he's just working his tail off," Heacock said. "He is a guy that's obsessed. He's working out, he's here watching film, and he's coaching the young guys."
Sabino, who expressed anxiousness to battle in game situations now that he has a much better grasp of Ohio State's defensive concepts, will have gone 20 months without playing in a game when the Buckeyes take on Akron in early September.
"I'm just trying to be a playmaker," he said. "I'm just trying to make plays and help this team win in any way I can. It doesn't matter where I am at on the field, I am just trying to make plays."
Contact Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6510.