COLUMBUS — For soft-spoken Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier, the picture of the legend is worth about a dozen words.
He met with reporters this week wearing a T-shirt bearing the iconic photo of Muhammad Ali exulting over a knocked-out Sonny Liston. It is one of many pieces from his Ali collection — an assemblage that includes old posters pinned to the bedroom wall of his off-campus house.
Why such an Ali fan? Shazier answers as if it is self-explanatory.
"Becuase he wanted to be great," he said, "and I want this team to be great."
And one more thing:
"I want to be great," Shazier said.
This desire is both a reason he is among the nation’s top defensive players — a worthy heir in the celebrated lineage of Ohio State linebackers — and a burden.
The good, of course, outweighs the bad. Shazier is a leader of a new-look defense the Buckeyes will unveil in Saturday’s season opener against the University of Buffalo.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior finished second in the Big Ten with 115 tackles last season and was voted this year a team captain and the league’s preseason defensive player of the year.
He is a human eraser, roaming sideline to sideline at higher speeds than most of the backs and receivers he is chasing down.
Shazier said he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds last year.
In short, his return is the strongest argument in Meyer’s case that this year’s Buckeyes defense may be improved despite losing seven starters. Last season, a unit long esteemed as the "Silver Bullets" steadily progressed but still allowed an average of 360 yards per game and finished 34th nationally in total defense.
"The jury is certainly still out this year," Meyer said. "But the one thing about Ohio State is that, for a decade, they were about as good a defense as there was in America. The last two years, it hasn't been that way. So I'm anxious to get it back there to the Ohio State level."
And why could this be the year?
"We're going to be a faster defense and hopefully more aggressive as we grow in our scheme," Meyer said. "We’re going to have a little more pressure packages than last year. We started last season as a bend-but-don't-break defense where it seemed like we were always on our heels, and that's not the kind of defense that anybody wants. We want to be an aggressive defense."
For Shazier, though, the path to Saturday has not always been smooth.
He said he "stressed" and felt pressure as the lone returning starter on the front seven. After missing most of spring ball while recovering from sports hernia surgery, Shazier especially worried about how he would connect with the two new starting linebackers, junior Curtis Grant in the middle and sophomore Josh Perry on the strongside. How much should he lead them? How much should he try to cover for their mistakes?
Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said he told Shazier, "The reality is we need you to play within the framework of the defense," which was easier said than done. Shazier sometimes froze with indecision during the first weeks of preseason camp.
"I have seen a guy that was pressing, like, ‘Should I talk to the team? Should I say something.’" Meyer said. "He’s such a great kid from a great family, he feels the void of what was there last year."
Said Shazier: "The coaches were telling me I have to start playing, just start having fun because me trying to stress too much about those guys — and those guys actually know what they're doing — is only going to slow me down."
So Shazier, a Pompano Beach, Fla., native whose father, Vernon, is a motivational speaker and team chaplain for the Miami Dolphins, upended his approach.
The past week, at least, it has worked.
“You see him making linebacker plays," Fickell said, "instead of just the highlight-reel plays that he can make."
In other words, Meyer said, "he’s been Ryan Shazier again."