Ohio State football: Ideal linebacker unit finally comes together
In their 11th game of the season, Ohio State finally will have what it believes to be its ideal starting group of linebackers.
With a game looming on Saturday against always-rugged Wisconsin, the timing could not be any better.
Fifth-year senior Etienne Sabino is expected to return after missing four games because of a fracture in a nonweight-bearing bone in his leg. For the first time, the Buckeyes will be whole at linebacker with Sabino and sophomore Ryan Shazier on the outside and senior Zach Boren in the middle.
“It has been a good week for those guys,” coach Urban Meyer said after practice yesterday. “Having Sabino back gives you a sense of stability that we haven’t had there in a while.”
Boren is growing more comfortable after moving from fullback four games ago. Shazier is blossoming into a star, evidenced by consecutive Big Ten defensive player of the week honors after Ohio State’s past two games.
However, Sabino, Boren and Shazier haven’t played together. Like all position groups, chemistry is crucial, and that often comes only through experience. But Boren said he doesn’t expect that to be an issue.
“Not a concern at all,” he said after practice Monday morning. “It’s just a communication thing and knowing what each of us is doing and thinking.”
Wisconsin will test that cohesion. With Montee Ball and James White, the Badgers have a formidable running back tandem. Wisconsin ran for 564 yards against Indiana last week.
“We have to be perfect,” Boren said. “The way their offensive line is able to double-team defensive tackles and get up onto ’backers — and the way they’re able to make inverted seams and let Ball and White run around — we have to play a perfect game. A lot of weight is on our shoulders, but we’re ready for it.”
Sabino was not made available to the media this week, so his health is a matter of conjecture. Meyer said that he would start, though adding, “I can’t tell you what percentage he’s at.”
Defensive end John Simon was more definitive:
“He looks great,” he said. “You can’t even tell he had an injury.”
Before he was injured against Nebraska on Oct. 6, Sabino had emerged as a leader and much-improved player. The Buckeyes have been able to get by without him in part because most opponents used a spread offense that enabled Ohio State to use their nickel defense — with a fifth defensive back and only two linebackers.
But Saturday will be a three-linebacker day. Wisconsin will do what Wisconsin has always tried to do: pound the ball on the ground.
Sabino, Boren and Shazier will have to answer the challenge. Behind them, Ohio State remains thin. Middle linebacker Storm Klein has fought a disk problem in his back and has seen only limited practice time. None of the touted younger players has developed enough for Meyer to feel comfortable.
“Still not near the depth we need,” he said. “I think there are ways to stop the run. What (the Badgers) do a nice job of is a multitude of shifts, formations and motions that are hard to get gap control or gap security on.”
The Buckeyes used part of their bye week to fine-tune that, Meyer said.
“Those guys definitely look great,” safety Orhian Johnson said. “What those guys are doing out there is showing great chemistry. (Sabino) is a great leader, (Shazier is) going out there and being a playmaker, and Boren is just tough-nosed. We definitely have confidence in them.”