COLUMBUS, Ohio -- There were two versions of Ryan Shazier, and each had roughly half a season to show what it could do.
One was completely healthy, freakishly fast for a linebacker and relied heavily on that athleticism to mask some issues in his understanding of the position.
The other was slowed by injury, robbed of some of that trademark speed, forced to both grind his way through the schedule while in pain and find ways to make up the difference mentally when not at his best physically.
Given the choice between those options, though, Ohio State would rather have the latter at its disposal given the way a banged-up Shazier finished the season after first feeling discomfort in the sixth game of the year -- and then watching his production actually go up as the speed went down. But what it really wants is for Shazier to combine those two guys into one scary package as he rebuilds himself following surgery for a sports hernia, which could put him in line to become the program’s next elite player at a position that has churned out more than a few of them.
“The way I felt, it’s hard to even explain how bad it felt,” Shazier said. “I feel like it started around the Nebraska game [on Oct. 6], and I just kept trying to fight through it and do whatever I could to help the team.
“I think one thing that really helped me with this injury was it caused me to slow down a little bit, because I was still as fast as everybody else but it caused me to slow down and learn leverage better, learn how not to overrun plays. Me being hurt, it was a minus but it was also a plus.”
In the long run, the Buckeyes are counting on the nagging issue that ultimately kept him out of full-contact drills throughout spring camp being much more of a positive, and it already has evidence that Shazier gained while in pain.
Through the first five games of the season leading up to the win over Nebraska and the start of his health problem, Shazier was still a tackling machine as he racked up 48 hits. But just 2.5 of those tackles went for a loss, he had just one sack and had only chipped in on a single turnover.
After that, the seemingly weakened version of Shazier went to another level, ultimately finishing his sophomore campaign with 17 tackles for loss, five sacks to his total, three forced fumbles and an interception return for a touchdown in the road victory over Penn State.
His explosion all came with what amounted to a speed governor on his legs, though, and heading into training camp and the start of the season Shazier again will be operating without any limitations. That certainly figures to be a good thing for the Buckeyes, but only if Shazier is able to apply the lessons he learned while at less than his best.
“We try to say things in our room that are kind of oxymorons to football,” defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “Be slow -- until it’s time to be fast. What that really means is to have patience. In order to slow the game down, when you really start to understand what’s happening around you, you have awareness of what’s going on.
“I think that [injury] allowed Ryan to do it. He couldn’t practice as much, he had to take some reps off, so he had to be in the back where he was just taking those mental reps, and that’s really one of those things he needed because it allowed him to slow the game down so he could play with some patience. Ryan is a guy who is very fast, very quick, and that can hurt you every bit as much as it can help you.”
Blending that improved knowledge of the game picked up by an entire spring spent watching film and observing his teammates in practice while also getting his body back in one piece should only help Shazier, and the Buckeyes will obviously benefit from that as well.
They weren’t exactly suffering with that first version of Shazier early last year as they started a winning streak that would last the entire season. But there was a clear improvement from the defense as a whole from the beginning of the year to the end, and the difference in Shazier was just as clear.
“Oh yeah, [coach Urban Meyer] talks to me about those [early games] sometimes,” Shazier said. “If I had my first half of the season as great as the second half of the season, I feel like that could help the team become even better than it was.
“He just tells me that we don’t need to take any steps backwards, we need to keep rolling forward from the last five games.”
Now it will be up to Shazier to make sure he’s rolling at the right speed.