Friday, January 14, 2011

OHIO STATE POSITION PREVIEW 2011: LINEBACKERS, REPLACING SENIORS

Ross Homan (51) is one of two linebackers the Buckeyes must replace in 2011. Brian Rolle (not pictured) is the other. (The Buckeye Times/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)
COLUMBUS — In the six seasons that I've been covering Ohio State football it seems like every year the Buckeyes are looking at replacing star linebackers in its lineup.

First it was trying to find replacements for A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter. Then there was the task of replacing James Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman. And going into the 2011 season, the Buckeyes are looking to fill in holes that Brian Rolle and Ross Homan — Ohio State's leading tacklers the past two seasons — left behind.

It's a never ending struggle — but a struggle that the Buckeyes always seem to overcome.

With a roster loaded with talent at linebacker, and a quality group of incoming freshman to choose from, as well, the Buckeyes problem really isn't if they have the thoroughbreds, but which ones they want to send to the derby.

Let's take a look at what the two-deep depth chart at linebacker may look like going into 2011 ...

Etienne Sabino (TBT/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)
IN THE MIDDLE

The Buckeyes must find a replacement for Rolle at the Mike spot. Rolle led the Buckeyes in tackles during the 2010 season and was also a vocal leader for the entire defense.

Two-deep candidates ...

ETIENNE SABINO (Jr.) — Sabino was surprisingly redshirted in 2010. At the beginning of fall camp, Sabino was at the top of the strong side depth chart. However, just prior to the season, the Buckeyes decided to go with Andrew Sweat at the Sam, while putting Sabino on ice for the year with a redshirt. The 6-3, 240-pounder is a prototype middle linebacker: strong, quick and fearless. He has 12 total tackles and a sack in his career at OSU.

STORM KLEIN (Jr.) — Klein was Rolle's top backup in 2010. Good size (6-2, 230) and solid football instincts. Klein recorded 18 tackles in 2010 (mostly on special teams), including one stop for a loss. He also showed his coverage skills by posting an interception in a win over Purdue. Quick, tough, athletic, smart ... a typical OSU middle backer.

Others who will compete at the Mike: Jordan Whiting (6-1, 240 So.), Tony Jackson (5-11, 220 Sr.), Scott McVey (6-0, 220 rFr.), Conner Crowell (6-1, 220 Fr.).

Who will start? ... There was a reason why Sabino was redshirted in 2010 and it wasn't for his play on the field. The Buckeyes knew that Sabino — who was just 17 years old when he arrived at OSU — had all of the attributes of a great middle linebacker. Knowing that Rolle was a senior, and having quality talent on the outside, head coach Jim Tressel didn't want Sabino to lose a year of eligibility coming off the pine a few times a game for Rolle.

I really think the Mike spot is Sabino's to lose. The veteran players have gushed about his athletic abilities and great work ethic, and I'm sure that Tressel and linebackers coach Luke Fickell have discussed their intentions with him. Let's face it, if they didn't, Sabino would have been on the first thing smoking out of town the day he received the redshirt.

Klein should see playing time, though. He's too good of a player to leave on the sideline. He would make for a good nickel back — star position — as well, but that discussion is for another day.

Andrew Sweat (TBT/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)
WEAK SIDE

The weak side is another spot where the Buckeyes must replace a veteran leader. Ross Homan, the Buckeyes leading tackler over the past two seasons, has graduated and leaves a gaping hole at the Will.

Two-deep candidates ...

ANDREW SWEAT (Sr.) — Sweat was the Buckeyes' starter on the strong side last season, but he will probably make the switch over to the weak side in 2011. Sweat actually played some weak side last season when Homan injured his foot in a mid-October game at Wisconsin. Sweat switched to Homan's side against the Badgers and finished the game with eight tackles and an interception. 

In the two games following, with Homan sidelined and Sweat at the Will, he recorded 13 total tackles (2.5 for loss) — the most tackles of any Buckeye player in that span. At 6-2, 240, Sweat brings the same type of game to the table as Homan did.

DORIAN BELL (So.) — Bell was Homan's backup at the Will last season. A blue-chip prospect coming out of high school in 2009, Bell hasn't made the impact at the linebacker position that many thought he would have. Bell thus far has made his name at Ohio State as a special teams ace, recording nine tackles in 2010 as a redshirt freshman. With physical skills and size (6-2, 225), Bell should compete for the starting Will backer spot, especially if they decide to keep Sweat on the strong side — which I doubt.

Others who will compete at the Will: Scott McVey (6-0, 220 rFr.), 
David Durham (6-1, 235 rFr.), 
Ryan Shazier (6-2, 205 Fr.), 
Conner Crowell (6-1, 220 Fr.).

Who will start? ... If the Buckeyes decide to move Sweat to the weak side, it's his job — no if, ands or buts. Also, Bell is suspended for the season opener against Akron for "violating team rules," so that doesn't help Bell's case much either.

Jon Newsome (TBT/Darla Dunkle-Hudnell)
STRONG SIDE

The Buckeyes starter from a season ago, Sweat, returns for his senior season. However, as I stated previously, Sweat will most likely be moving to the Will, creating an opening on the strong side.

Two-deep candidates ...

JON NEWSOME (Jr.) — Newsome is exceptionally quick and possesses good size (6-3, 225) on the strong side. A back up for Sweat last season at the Sam, Newsome recorded 15 tackles as a sophomore. Look for Newsome to be at the top of the depth chart in the spring. His work will determine if he stays there.

SWEAT/SABINO — If Sweat stays on the strong side, then it will be Sweat No. 1, with Newsome as his backup. If Sweat moves to the Will and the Buckeyes decide to go with Klein at the Mike, thenSabino moves to No. 1 at the Sam, with Newsome again moving to No. 2. In case of injury, Bell become emergency No. 2. Get all that?

Others who will compete at the Sam: Scott McVey (6-0, 220 rFr.), 
Ryan Shazier (6-2, 205 Fr.),  
Conner Crowell (6-1, 220 Fr.), David Durham (6-1, 235 rFr.).

Who will start? ... If Sweat and Sabino start at the Will and Mike, then the job is Newsome's — at least thru the spring and early fall. This is the one position, though, that I feel a freshman may get a look (e.g., McVey, Durham, Shazier, Crowell, or even possibly an uncommitted player like Curtis Grant or Ejuan Price).

NEXT POSITION PREVIEW: RUNNING BACKS ...