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COLUMBUS — There was a time not long ago when Ohio State had too many linebackers.
Just ask Zach Boren, whose switch to fullback before his freshman year in 2009 was prodded by that very reality. Before the position became an emblem of the Buckeyes’ defensive struggles, their linebacker tradition appeared in good hands.
OSU signed a combined eight linebackers in 2009 and 2010, including five-star prospect Dorian Bell, and struck it even richer in last year’s recruiting class. Curtis Grant was rated by Rivals.com as the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect — a projected superstar in waiting.
So how exactly did the Buckeyes become so beat-up and depleted that Boren will return to where it all began today and start at linebacker against Purdue?
A staggering confluence of injuries, attrition, recruiting misses, and Grant’s slower-than-expected development have left No. 7 OSU (7-0, 3-0 Big Ten) searching for a last-resort fix.
Coach Urban Meyer hopes that stopgap is Boren, a senior captain who started at fullback his first four seasons before switching sides last week against Indiana.
With senior starter Etienne Sabino out at least two more weeks with a broken bone in his leg and a promising stable of freshmen not quite ready for significant action, Boren will start at middle linebacker alongside sophomore Ryan Shazier and freshman Joshua Perry. At IU, he led the Buckeyes with eight tackles.
“So much of playing football is the leadership value of what's going on,” Meyer said. “Who is the tough guy on the defense? Who is the guy that's going to stand up and take charge?
“You start sticking freshmen here and there, here and there, and they're just in survival mode, not leadership mode. … Right now we're putting an APB out for tough guys for the guys that take the center of the defense and make it whole. Zach has certainly helped.”
Still, Meyer said, “it is a little bit of a shock.”
Few could have envisioned a program known for its linebacker tradition facing such a desperate scenario. But a look at the Buckeyes’ recent recruiting classes helps cast a light on the dilemma.
Of the Buckeyes’ eight linebacker recruits in 2009 and 2010, only seniors Storm Klein and Boren remain with the team. Bell was suspended and left the program — he now plays for Duquesne in Pittsburgh — Jamel Turner never got to campus, Jordan Whiting and David Durham transferred, and Scott McVey and Chad Hagan had their careers cut short by injury.
“You’ve got some situations where, wow, you hoped you had that third or fourth-year guy that could step in and know what he’s doing when the opportunity arises,” said defensive coordinator Luke Fickell, who coaches the linebackers.
OSU also suffered rare in-state recruiting misses, losing the top Ohio linebacker recruit in 2010 and 2011. Five-star prospects Jordan Hicks (Cincinnati) and Trey DePriest (Springfield) are now starting at Texas and Alabama, respectively.
Grant, a Parade All-American, looked to be a major coup. But the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Richmond, Va., native has played little over his first two seasons.
“Curtis is still trying to pick it up,” Fickell said. “There’s a great example of a guy that’s in his second year. He’s been here a year and a half, and he’s still trying to figure it out. Sometimes it takes time.”
The paper-thin depth has left the Buckeyes without what fans once took for granted from Ohio State’s linebackers — a sure-tackling veteran who both cleans up messes and helps others avoid them.
So now the Buckeyes turn to their fullback, who will gladly reacquaint with the position he once played on Friday nights.
"I’ll go back there and play safety or put on weight and play center if I have to," Boren said.