Ohio State football: Buckeyes have a lot to sort out at linebacker

COLUMBUS -- Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles likes what he has seen so far from freshmen linebackers C.J. Hicks and Gabe Powers.

“C.J. shows a lot of short space quickness, and his feet are excellent,” Knowles said of the Alter High School product. “He has a he has an outstanding ability to break on the ball. So I think I’m I’m seeing from C.J. a lot of a lot of the quickness and speed that I expected.

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“And then Gabe is quiet, but I think he’s one of these guys that gets better every day. I mean, he is a serious student of the game. And I just see his trajectory in six practices as being completely upward. He’s a guy who just wants to learn, wants to grow, and he makes that transition from the classroom to the field.”

The pair likely has a bright future, but for now they are part of a big group of players trying to find their fit in Knowles’ defense.

Primarily a 4-2-5, it has room for only two traditional linebackers most of the time, and competition for those two starting spots figures to be fierce because Knowles said he believes two players need to get the majority of game reps to get into the flow of a game.

That has also led to some players trying different positions, such as Mitchell Melton and Palaie Gaoteote getting looks at the “Jack” defensive end and Cade Stover moving back to tight end.

“You have to be able to make an assessment, and in order to make an assessment, you got to get the guys repetitions,” Knowles said. “And there’s a lot of talent, but none of it is completely proven, right? Because you have guys all competing for positions. So that’s where you want to take guys and maybe move them to other positions just to get a chance to look at them.”

Knowles, who is also he linebackers coach, is not likely to be close to making a decision on who his starting linebackers will be this fall, but he praised veterans Tommy Eichenberg and Teradja Mitchell this week.

“I think Tommy has been a great leader for us,” Knowles said. “I really liked what I’ve seen out of Tommy. I think he’s mastering the defense quickly and making plays. And he’s quiet, but he’s fierce. And Teradja is also a guy who leads in more of a vocal way than Tommy, but he gives us a lot of that energy.”

He also likes what he has seen so far from Chip Trayanum, an Akron native who played running back at Arizona State the past two seasons but is changing sides of the ball in Columbus.

“I’ve seen nothing but good things out of Chip,” Knowles said. “I like that conversion of running back to linebacker. I like recruiting a kid from high school who was a star running back and also played defense because they just have a feel, you know?”

He has found that linebackers who played running back have a knack for finding the hole as fast or faster than the ball-carrier, and he compared it to the way a certain “Great One” played hockey.

“Wayne Gretzky said he doesn’t go where the puck is, he goes where the puck is going to be,” Knowles said. “So these guys that are converted, running backs, they can get a feel for where the running back is gonna end up, so it’s pretty neat. Chip is doing great and so is Steele (Chambers).”

While Ohio State figures to have a base defense that usually includes five defensive backs, Knowles said there will be times the Buckeyes use a third linebacker.

A sub package with a “SAM” linebacker replacing one of the defensive backs will be for facing teams that like to use two tight ends, something he expects to see more of in the Big Ten than he did in the Big 12.

Gaoteote and Reid Carrico, a redshirt freshman from Ironton, are among the candidates to be the SAM when Ohio State needs one.

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