Ohio State kicked off spring ball in 2010 looking for a third linebacker to join standouts Ross Homan and Brian Rolle.
Just days into practice, the Buckeyes appeared to have found their missing piece: Etienne Sabino.
"He's the guy," linebackers coach Luke Fickell said after a workout last April. "This has been his best spring so far."
A quick glance at Ohio State's 2010 stats shows Sabino had no tackles, no sacks, no interceptions ... and no games played. Before the season kicked off, Sabino and the coaches agreed that redshirting would be the best option.
Andrew Sweat, who outperformed Sabino in preseason camp, moved into the third starting linebacker position. Sabino spent Saturdays on the sideline.
"I did feel good about my situation last spring, but unfortunately several things happened," Sabino told me this week. "That's behind me, and I'm just looking forward to the future."
Sabino is once again a big part of Ohio State's plan at linebacker. The Buckeyes must replace multi-year starters in Rolle and Homan, and the spotlight once again has turned to Sabino, a 6-3, 242-pound junior from North Miami Beach, Fla.
"This is what you come here for, so it's very exciting," he said. "I feel real comfortable out there, and I think everything is just clicking right now."
Although Sabino prefers to lead by example, he has taken a more active role on the practice field. He made many of the defensive calls in Saturday's scrimmage, and cornerback Travis Howard told The Columbus Dispatch that Sabino is "definitely our leader right now in the middle of the field."
"I'm just trying to do the right things at all times, and hopefully, people will follow," Sabino said.
He didn't get the chance last fall. The coaches liked their linebacker depth entering the season with two All-Big Ten candidates and the emerging Sweat.
But injuries began to erode Ohio State's defense, first in the secondary and then at linebacker, as Homan hurt his foot against Wisconsin and would miss several weeks. Suddenly, the prospect of Sabino taking the field seemed very real.
The worst part: He hoped he wouldn't have to.
"If anybody else was to go down, I was going to have to come out of my redshirt year," he said. "We were about eight games into the season. By that point, I was just hoping everybody would stay healthy so I wouldn't have to play. But if I was called on, I would have been ready.
"Luckily, everybody was able to stay healthy."
Along with Sweat, Sabino will anchor the linebacker group this season, and he has spent the spring fine-tuning his game, trying to keep his pads lower and employ better technique. Ohio State says goodbye to seven defensive starters, the most production lost since after the 2005 season.
It's critical for players like Sabino, who has been around a while but lacks game experience, to fill the gaps.
"Is it going to be a challenge? Yes," Sabino said. "But I think we’re up for it. I think we're going to surprise a couple people."