Ohio State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell has a tall order this season. He must replace 171 tackles from former Buckeyes Joshua Perry and Darron Lee, including 18.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks.
Migrating into a starting role is difficult enough, but when those players are following the footsteps of NFL draft picks, the water is even tougher to tread. Perry was a fourth-round pick to the San Diego Chargers, and Lee was selected No. 20 overall by the New York Jets. However, it’s not just those guys. It’s a long list of NFL linebackers to come out of OSU.
“It’s not just 37 (Perry), there’s a No. 10, Ryan Shazier, there’s a No. 47, A.J. Hawk,” Fickell said on Tuesday after the team’s third practice. “There’s a standard set and that’s what we expect you to live up to.”
Fickell has been on the OSU staff since 2002 when he was the special teams coordinator under former coach Jim Tressel. He has been a part of a national championship with Tressel and coach Urban Meyer, and spent four years as a linebacker on the 1993-1996 Buckeyes, starting in 50 consecutive games. In that time, he has seen a few changes of the guard at the linebacker position.
Replacing eight starters on defense sounds like a daunting task, but Fickell was a part of the 2006 team that replaced nine starters on defense to make it to the national championship game where OSU eventually lost to Meyer’s Florida Gators. Linebackers Lee and now-junior Raekwon McMillan were thrown into the fire in 2014 and rose to the occasion. This season, Fickell said, is just another example of relying on young players.
“We’re going to continue to recruit the best and guys are going to come in here and expect to play,” Fickell said. “I can say probably one of the greatest things we’ve been able to have around here is competition, especially at the linebacker spot.”
Meyer has been regarded as one of the nation’s best recruiters. His ability to retool rather than rebuild on both sides of the ball is perhaps the greatest reason the 2016 Buckeyes are a favorite to win the Big Ten conference.
Junior Dante Booker and redshirt junior Chris Worley are likely going to play at the weak-side linebacker and strong-side linebacker positions, respectively, with McMillan manning the middle. Booker and Worley may be new to the top of the depth chart, but Buckeye fans should take solace in knowing that those two are some of the most experienced players having to replace starters this season. Linebacker has always been a strong suit of the OSU defense, and Fickell believes this season will be no different.
“They’re not those 44 some guys that are freshmen that have either redshirted or never played a down,” he said. “That’s one of those things where you can lay your head on a pillow at night knowing those guys are legitimate guys. They live, sleep and breathe our culture.”
Worley and Booker saw several snaps last season and played on the special teams as well. McMillan, the team’s leading tackler in 2015, said that he doesn’t feel like he has to lead them like he does some more youthful teammates. He said going against the OSU offense in practice is as good of game preparation as a player can get in practice.
“We have been working with each other the whole summer so we built that bond and that chemistry on the field,” McMillan said. “Once you build that chemistry on the field, you can work together and play together.”
The expectation has been the same for the linebacker unit since they arrived on campus, and 2016 is no exception. They all sat behind guys like Curtis Grant, Perry and Lee, all of whom Fickell and McMillan proclaimed as great leaders. To be in the conversation of the last two seasons of dominant linebackers, McMillan, Booker and Worley are focusing on team accolades rather than their own personal goals.
“We’re just going out there as hard as we can,” Booker said. “We’re trying to eliminate the selfish aspect of the game. Just go out there and become tighter as a unit.”
Worley, too, understands the height of the bar set by former member of the “Silver Bullets.”
“Coach Meyer don’t change the expectation,” he said. “Either you reach it or you got to get out.”