The "Inside the Game" position preview series continues with the crux of any defense -- and long a position with a lot of lineage at both Michigan and Ohio State: Linebackers.
BuckeyeNation’s Austin Ward and WolverineNation’s Michael Rothstein take a look at the men in the middle of both defenses.
Rothstein: Michigan’s linebackers can rejoice. For the first time since any of them has been a Wolverine, they will play in essentially the same defensive scheme with the same defensive coordinator for the second season in a row.
And if you think that doesn’t make a difference, you’re kidding yourself. Even defensive coordinator Greg Mattison said as much, that having the players learning the same system for the second year allows for a faster refresher course along with more advanced teaching. And for the linebackers more than any other defensive position group, this is critical.
Demens is Michigan’s leading returning tackler with 94 last season, including three sacks. Morgan, as a freshman, was fifth in tackles with 63. At linebacker, that kind of production is expected.
That starting group, though, will be pushed. Junior Cam Gordon is fighting with Ryan for time, as is senior Brandin Hawthorne behind Morgan. Also involved are a gaggle of talented freshmen, including James Ross III, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Kaleb Ringer and Joe Bolden, who enrolled last spring and could see a lot of time his freshman season.
Still, though, it is a young group with a lot of room to grow and likely won’t see its true potential for another season or two.
Ward: There may not be a linebacker with the name recognition of the Ohio State legends that have come before them.
By its own admission, the current group of Buckeyes didn’t live up to the expectations established by those predecessors.
But even without a Hawk or Laurinaitis this fall, the middle of the defense should be much improved even if there isn’t any established star on the roster during training camp.
Perhaps by the time the Buckeyes take on their rivals at the end of the season, though, sophomores Ryan Shazier and Curtis Grant could make themselves a lot more familiar to folks around the Big Ten. Shazier in particular began building some buzz for himself during a three-game tackling barrage when he was inserted into the starting lineup due to injury last season and responded with 30 takedowns.
Now Shazier appears to have a more permanent spot in the rotation, and along with Grant and senior Etienne Sabino they should give defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell a solid foundation to start with. While there isn’t much experience in reserve to work with right now, the Buckeyes loaded up with five talented signees in February who will ultimately be charged with restoring the program’s proud defensive tradition.
There probably won’t be as much pressure to do it right away with arguably the best line in the nation in front and a skilled, veteran secondary behind them. But they should be able to get things back on track either way.