Linebackers still concern Meyer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The names are well known to anybody walking around the hallways at Ohio State, and even though he hasn't coaching them, they roll right off the tongue of Urban Meyer.

A.J. Hawk.

James Laurinaitis.

Bobby Carpenter and Brian Rolle.

Meyer could keep going as he makes his point about the tradition and high standards the Buckeyes set for their linebackers. And while the Ohio State coach has one sure-fire addition to that list currently anchoring his defense in Ryan Shazier, the fact that he doesn’t have more than that on hand right now continues to put the unit in his crosshairs -- no matter how solidly it might have played lately.

“The linebacker position is still my biggest concern on our team,” Meyer said. “The depth is a major concern.

“When you think of the great linebackers [the program has had] -- arguably the last decade as good as a linebackers as anywhere in the country played at Ohio State.”

The Buckeyes do have an individual candidate who could make a claim as the best linebacker in the country with Shazier contributing in almost every way imaginable thanks to his incredible combination of instincts and athleticism. And collectively, the first-team unit with Shazier, Joshua Perry and middle linebacker Curtis Grant has helped Ohio State get back among the nation’s elite defenses, ranking in the top 10 in total defense, scoring defense and rushing yardage allowed.

But there’s precious little depth behind that group of starters. And with no margin for error, even relatively minor injuries like the finger surgery Perry had during the bye week or the ankle and back issues that have slowed Grant, could lead to major concerns for a team in the thick of the BCS title chase. Both of them are expected to play on Saturday at Illinois, but even when they’ve been completely healthy, Meyer has continued to train his focus on getting more out of that position to take the defense to another level -- one it’s historically used to reaching.

And while there’s nothing the Buckeyes can do during the season to add more bodies to the roster, that emphasis on development at the position has clearly yielded some results as Perry has chipped in 33 tackles in his first season as a starter and Grant has finally begun living up to his recruiting hype as a full-time player.

“I think it’s definitely motivation,” Perry said. “I know what we do in our meetings rooms and how we react to that, and we take that as a challenge for us. I think we’ve been playing a lot better these last few weeks, but it’s never good enough. We just have to keep hitting our stride.

“Early in the year, I think we were a team of talented guys, but not necessarily technicians. We weren’t great at fundamentals, didn’t necessarily have as good of a grasp on the scheme as we do right now. And then when you turn on the film, you see guys running to the ball, definitely with better effort, and I think that comes with confidence from knowing what we’re doing.”

The Buckeyes also don’t keep their successful past with linebackers a secret, which is a true measuring stick.

The statistics this season look good on paper. The team is undefeated and riding a 21-game winning streak. But there’s one position in particular that has a pretty high bar it has yet to clear in Meyer’s eyes.

“We're nowhere near where we need to be as far as the expectation level of the linebacker play here,” Meyer said. “We need to get back to that.”

If the Buckeyes need examples of what Meyer is looking for, he’s got a lengthy list he can point to in a hurry.