COLUMBUS — After looking at Ohio State football’s spring position groups on offense last week, we turn our attention to the defense this week.
The stop unit took some steps forward last season under new coordinator Jim Knowles, but not enough to get the Buckeyes back to the Big Ten Championship Game or the win column against Michigan.
We start this examination of spring football units with the one Knowles will coach with the help of a face familiar to Ohio State fans: Linebacker.
Returning starters: Tommy Eichenberg, Steele Chambers
Next in line: Cody Simon, C.J. Hicks, Reid Carrico, Gabe Powers, Mitchell Melton
On the way: Arvell Reese
In a year, this group has gone from one of the biggest question marks to one of the best-known commodities on the Ohio State team.
In his first season as a starter, Eichenberg finished third in the Big Ten with 112 tackles, and his 12 tackles for loss were the most for a Big Ten inside linebacker and for a Buckeye.
He also had an interception return for a touchdown and finished second among all Ohio State players with five quarterback hits.
James Laurinaitis, who has returned to his alma mater as a graduate assistant with plans to work extensively with the linebackers, joked he will need Eichenberg to show him some of the defensive scheme to help him get up to speed, but that might not be much of an exaggeration.
“It helps you relearn it, so we’ll watch some tape together, hopefully next week,” Laurinaitis said Feb. 1. “So it’s just how do you go about immersing yourself in all the details of the scheme, and then building from there?
“As a player, I had to know it all or at least try to know it all because I was never a player that you take a few false steps, you’re gonna track somebody down. I had to be on top of it. I had to use anticipation.”
Chambers also excelled in his first full season as a linebacker, logging 77 tackles including 6.5 for loss and a pair of sacks. The former running back intercepted two passes and broke up two more but said he felt he could use another year of development at the position before entering the NFL Draft.
Ironically, the pair is in a similar situation to the one Laurinaitis and Marcus Freeman found themselves in 15 years ago when they chose to return for their senior seasons after losing to LSU in the BCS National Championship Game.
“I’m excited for the whole room, but yeah, there’s a little bit of similarity there,” Laurinaitis said. “I was just letting both those guys know to reach out with any questions they have. Don’t hold anything back. It’ll take me maybe a little bit to kind of get to the point in the scheme where I can help them, but there will be some stuff instantly that I’ll be able to help with running back alignments or tight ends splits or things that the offense is trying to attack you where I’ve been in their shoes literally and I know the issues and where we can get beat and how to protect ourselves in those situations.”
Simon is another veteran who can help break in Laurinaitis, but it remains to be seen what his role might be. Simon was a starter for much of 2021 but hampered by a shoulder injury that later required surgery. Eichenberg jumped him on the depth chart last year, and Simon ended up seeing most of his playing time on the brief occasions Ohio State would roll out a three-linebacker look.
One thing to watch this spring is whether or not Hicks can impress the coaches enough for them to carve out a role for him. The Alter High School grad was the top-rated recruit in the 2022 Ohio State class but saw almost all of his time on special teams last fall.
“I mean, just a ton of talent,” Laurinaitis said of his impression of Hicks. “Unbelievable movement skills. Looks the part and just really excited to get to know him and continue to work with him because you can see the talent there. I mean, it just pops on the field and kind of the way he moves and just watching them run today was impressive.”
Carrico is entering his third season still looking to make a mark. The four-star recruit from Ironton had one tackle in eight games last season.
Powers, another 2022 signee, rarely saw the field last fall, but the four-star recruit from Marysville could be another candidate to play SAM linebacker should that package get more use this season.
Melton is going to be out for the spring as he continues to recover from a knee injury suffered in last year’s spring game. He started his career at linebacker but turned heads last spring working as an edge rusher, so his role this fall is uncertain.
Reese is a four-star signee from Cleveland Glenville who will join the program this summer.
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