Fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino is expected to be the glue for an Ohio State linebacking group that will be very young this season.
COLUMBUS -- Ohio State linebackers for years provided the spine-rattling heart of some of the nation's most feared defenses.
Page through the old programs, from Tom Cousineau to Chris Spielman to Andy Katzenmoyer to the assembly line of All-Americans produced under former coach Jim Tressel. Matt Wilhelm. A.J. Hawk. James Laurinaitis.
"You think about the last 10 years of football who's played linebacker at Ohio State, I'd put that group against any group in America," OSU coach Urban Meyer said. "Maybe in college football history."
But tradition skipped a year last fall.
When Meyer spent a recent night watching a replay of the Buckeyes' 40-34 loss at Michigan last season, he fast learned it was not the best choice for bedtime viewing. An OSU defense that allowed at least 20 points in its last games last year was helpless against quarterback Denard Robinson and the Wolverines -- hacked for 277 rushing yards and three touchdown passes.
"That wasn't the Ohio State defense I'm used to seeing," Meyer said.
And, more specifically, those weren't the linebackers he was used to seeing.
"They have to play better," Meyer said.
A group led by fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino and a pair of blue-chip sophomores remains the biggest question mark on the defense.
It is not a talent question, either. Sabino believes he can shove aside four unfulfilling seasons for an all-conference final one.
"He has to be one of those guys," Meyer said.
Ryan Shazier, whose 56 tackles last season were the most by an OSU freshman since Andy Katzenmoyer had 86 in 1996, said he feels better prepared after bulking up this offseason from 205 pounds to 230. And Curtis Grant is bent on living up to his five-star billing after admittedly feeling lost in his first year.
But none have proven themselves over time, and don't ask about depth. The summer dismissal of senior Storm Klein, who started much of last season at middle linebacker, after his arrest for misdemeanor domestic assault effectively leaves OSU with a player teammates affectionately call Grandpa --Sabino --and a bunch of cubs. The two linebackers Meyer singled out in praise over the last week just set foot on campus: freshmen David Perkins and Jamal Marcus.
"We don't know that we truly have three starters yet, let alone have depth," said Luke Fickell, the Buckeyes' co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. "That's my biggest concern. We have to develop depth. I'm looking for those six guys that you can lay on the pillow at night saying they're going to give you everything they've got, that football is that important to him that they're going to figure out a way to be successful."
Meyer considers Sabino the linchpin. Though the once-heralded Miami native has not enjoyed the success he envisioned -- Sabino has 74 career tackles and took a healthy redshirt season in 2010 -- his dedication to change that has won over Meyer. He was among the three players chosen to represent OSU at Big Ten media days in Chicago.
"My career has not been by the books, but that's in the past," Sabino said. "I'm excited to be where I'm at. If could do it all over again, I'd still come to Ohio State. I love it here."
Said Meyer: "He hasn't played to his potential yet, but he's doing everything he can. I trust he will."
Meyer says the same for Shazier and Grant. Though it is only the players' second year, he does not mince his assessments.
He called Grant "not ready" for college football last season. Grant, the Buckeyes' starting middle linebacker, had two tackles in limited time last season, the burden of expectation growing larger by the week. The Richmond, Va., native was Rivals.com's No. 2 overall prospect in his class.
The bar is higher for Shazier, who had 15 tackles against Penn State in his first start. Meyer expects more consistency. He noted Shazier's struggles against Michigan.
A reporter replied that Shazier, a Plantation, Fla., native who committed to Florida but reopened his recruitment when Meyer resigned after the 2010 season, was playing through a strained knee ligament.
"Dog ate my homework," Meyer said. "He didn't play very well. Linebackers have to play dinged up. The great ones do."
Shazier was fine with Meyer's bite.
"I really respect that because you should have no excuses for anything that goes wrong," he said.
Shazier hears the directive often -- especially in position group meetings. No excuses. For the Buckeyes defense to be great again, so must their linebackers.
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.
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