COLUMBUS - Marcus Freeman was the quickest, baddest linebacker in Ohio State's 2004 recruiting class.
The high school Parade All-American from the Dayton suburb of Huber Heights didn't disappoint.
He appeared in all 13 games for the Buckeyes as a freshman two years ago.
Most of his playing time was logged on the special teams, but by the end of his first season, Freeman had worked his way up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind Bobby Carpenter.
Big things were expected from the lightning-quick Freeman last season even though he was the fourth linebacker behind an elite trio that included Carpenter, A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel.
But Freeman tore up his knee in the opener against Miami (Ohio) and didn't play again. He redshirted after a staph infection slowed his recovery.
Freeman didn't sulk.
Instead, he added 12 pounds of bulk to his 6-foot-2 frame, pushing his weight to 242 pounds.
Freeman not only has become a more physical player this season, he has earned a more prominent role in the Buckeyes' rock-solid defense.
"He's moved around a little bit and has probably been at three different spots," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "He's a pretty flexible guy because he's been here three years and he's had a lot of experience at different positions. But his contribution starts with knowledge, then it goes to speed, then to production. He's done a good job for us."
Defense was the Buckeyes' biggest question mark entering this season. Nine starters were gone, including the entire linebacker corps - Carpenter and Hawk were first-round NFL draft picks, and Schlegel was a third-round selection.
But Freeman, James Laurinaitis and the rest of the gang have carried on the tradition of solid linebacker play.
Freeman has played both strong-side and weak-side linebacker spots, and Laurinaitis anchors the middle. The rest of the rotation has included Curtis Terry, Larry Grant, John Kerr and Ross Homan.
Laurinaitis is the undisputed leader with 86 tackles, five interceptions and four sacks. Freeman is third on the team in tackles with 49. He has two interceptions and one sack.
"You have to give the coaches a lot of credit," Freeman said. "They continue to put us in the right positions to do things well."
Just about every personnel decision defensive coordinator Jim Heacock and linebackers coach Luke Fickell have made has worked out dandy.
No. 1 Ohio State, which plays at Northwestern Saturday before finishing up with its Nov. 18 showdown against No. 2 Michigan, has limited its last five opponents to 27 total points.
The Buckeyes, ninth in the country in total defense, have surrendered just one touchdown in the last 12 quarters.
For the season, they have forced a whopping 22 turnovers, including 19 interceptions.
"We had a meeting at the beginning of the year and the coaches told us we had talent and we could see our potential," Freeman said.
"We haven't reached our full potential yet, but we keep getting better.
"Our defense has been getting better each week, too. Our goal at the end of the season is to be the No. 1 defense in the nation."
Ohio State's underrated defense still has some work to do to be the best, but Freeman isn't about to flinch.
Why should he?
This guy is confident enough to wear the No. 1 jersey.39.96196 -83.00298