COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Nobody is walking into a stress-free environment when Ohio State returns to the practice field in spring as long as national-title aspirations hang in the air and Urban Meyer prowls the sideline.
But the pressure isn't the same for all the Buckeyes since a healthy handful have their names etched at the top of the depth chart and won't be sweating a competition for a starting job -- obviously beginning with a quarterback who has finished in the top 10 in Heisman Trophy voting two years running. But who will back up Braxton Miller is just one of the intriguing positional battles that will be waged in March and April, and after already tackling that topic and another position on offense in the countdown, the series shifts to the other side of the ball for a critical competition in the middle of the defense.
No. 3: Outside linebacker
Predecessor: Ryan Shazier (143 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks, 4 forced fumbles; declared early for the NFL draft)
Why to watch: With two returning starters, on the surface there appears to be only one hole to fill, and it's the gaping one left behind by Shazier at the most beleaguered position group on the roster. But even with Curtis Grant in the middle and Joshua Perry looking like a viable option at strongside linebacker, there still could be shakeups at those spots, depending on just how quickly some of the young talent can transition to life at Ohio State and the Big Ten. Assuming Grant and Perry build on their steady, but certainly not spectacular, 2013 seasons and solidify themselves in those jobs, that will put an even brighter spotlight on the guys trying to replace a player who was one of the most productive linebackers in the country in the last two seasons. The Buckeyes counted on Shazier to do so much work from sideline to sideline, in the backfield and in pass coverage, that simply plugging in one guy and expecting similar results isn't realistic. That will make it imperative for Ohio State to weigh its options at each spot during the spring, regardless of previous position or experience, and make sure it has the best group of three it can put on the field as it tries again to live up to the high expectations the program has for its linebackers.
Pre-camp edge: There aren't many positions more difficult for a true freshman to make an instant impact than linebacker, but the hype around McMillan is already building thanks to his early enrollment and a mature body that clearly has impressed Urban Meyer. His development figures to be aided by going through spring practice, and that should also be a big benefit for the coaching staff as they get a look at where he might fit best. But either way, Johnson is a sure bet to line up with the first-team defense when camp opens in March, and he has been praised for his football intelligence and sharp instincts. He's certainly no slouch as an athlete, either, and the Buckeyes are expecting more from him than the six games and 11 tackles he chipped in as a freshman.