The way Ohio State outside linebacker Ryan Shazier started out last season, he probably should have been equipped with a GPS. He motored around the field at a high speed but often ended up in the wrong locations.
After working with position coach Luke Fickell, though, the junior from Pompano Beach, Fla., figured out how to turn pursuits of opposing ball carriers into shorter trips.
“Last year, I used to just rip and run,” he said. “Coach Fickell is teaching me things to slow me down and keep me square. That’s really helped out a lot.”
Shazier was named first-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore last season after leading the Buckeyes with 115 tackles. In a poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tallying two votes from media in each Big Ten city, he was named the preseason conference defensive player of the year.
OSU has had a history of superb linebacker play with eight first-round draft choices since 1974. And Fickell believes Shazier compares favorably those of recent vintage, including A.J. Hawk and Andy Katzenmoyer.
“He’s got unbelievable talent,” Fickell said. “Everyone I’ve been fortunate to coach has been really different. You say, ‘This guy’s the best this, this guy’s the best that.’ But one thing I can say about Ryan, he has the ability to make more plays than anybody we’ve had.”
Shazier not only has a nose for the ball, but uncommon speed and athleticism for the position. But what Fickell values most is that Shazier shows up at practice as if he’s just trying to earn a spot on the team bus.
“All those things (he has) are some of God’s gifts, but the intangible things are what’s going to give him a chance to be great,” Fickell said.
The 6-foot-2, 222-pound Shazier led the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss last year, the 10th-highest total in OSU history. He was the first Buckeye sophomore to top 100 tackles since James Laurinaitis in 2006. Laurinaitis was a high draft pick in 2009, being selected by the St. Louis Rams with the third pick of the second round.
Shazier also had 70 solo tackles, the most at OSU since Matt Wilhelm (a fourth-round draft pick) had 79 in 2002.
But despite the high praise from Fickell, the humble Shazier isn’t sure he belongs with such elite company.
“I love being put with those types of names, but right now, I need to focus on things like leading these guys to where they want to go,” he said. “I still have to focus on things from coach Fickell, like my fundamentals and footwork, because I feel like those things aren’t where they need to be.”
The Buckeyes will be counting on Shazier for leadership since he’ll be surrounded by so much inexperience. Sophomore Josh Perry is pegged to start at the other outside linebacker spot, while junior Curtis Grant is the current starting middle linebacker. Neither has been on the field for many meaningful snaps.
The Buckeyes have callow back-ups, too. OSU won heated recruiting battles for Mike Mitchell of Texas and Trey Johnson of Georgia, and the freshmen are candidates for immediate playing time.
“Right now, I’m just trying to take it all in,” Mitchell said. “It’s a completely new world. You’ve got a scheme for every little thing. It moves so fast, and you’ve just got to absorb it.”
The 6-4, 225-pound Mitchell, recruited to play middle linebacker, actually grew up in Orlando and followed the Florida Gators when coach Urban Meyer was there. But he’s also familiar with the exploits of past OSU linebackers.
His favorites were A.J. Hawk and Laurinaitis, and he’s watched film of both.
Asked what he liked about the latter, he said: “Just the fact of how physical he is. And his brain. He has that linebacker brain. He recognizes so much on film, and his linebacker IQ is really high.”
Mitchell said of Hawk: “He’s a big guy, and I like his athleticism, too. He’s one of those tough linebackers that came out of here with Bobby Carpenter and (Anthony) Schlagel.”
Ohio State linebackers
First-round NFL draft picks
A.J. Hawk 2006
Bobby Carpenter 2006
Andy Katzenmoyer 1999
Craig Powell 1995
Tom Cousineau* 1979
Bob Brudzinski 1977
Randy Gradishar 1974
Rick Middletown 1974
*First player taken in draft