Ryan Shazier was playing for more than just himself and his current teammates last weekend at Penn State.
The Ohio State linebacker switched his jersey number to 48 to honor Gary Curtis, his friend and the former manager for Shazier's Plantation (Fla.) High School football team. Curtis, who was bound to a wheelchair but always wore his No. 48 jersey to Plantation games, suffered from muscular dystrophy and died in the spring.
"He was real close to me, and I treated him like a brother," Shazier told ESPN.com. "I talked to him before all my games last year. When he left, it was really important to me just to let people know about that disorder that some people have to go through. He never got to play, and I wanted to play through him."
Shazier brought attention to his late friend with a standout performance in the Buckeyes' 35-23 victory over the Nittany Lions. On consecutive plays during the third quarter of a tie game, he sacked Penn State quarterback Matt McGloin and then intercepted a McGloin pass for a defensive touchdown. He was named Big Ten co-defensive player of the week on Monday.
It was actually the second straight strong showing for Shazier, who had 13 tackles in an overtime win over Purdue. Head coach Urban Meyer called that Purdue effort Shazier's best of the season. The linebacker had been part of the problem for Ohio State's defensive struggles in the first half of the season. Now he's become part of the solution.
Shazier is one of the best athletes on the team, a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who has been clocked in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash. When he hits you, you don't forget it for a while. But his fundamentals were lacking earlier this year, and Meyer called him "an out-of-control guy" who missed too many tackles as the Buckeyes defense gave up several huge plays.
"He is blessed with real quick-twitch muscles and he's fast," Meyer said. "However, allowing cutbacks are when you get big plays against you, and he was a culprit."
That has changed the past two games, and Shazier credits better preparation and technique. He says he has been watching more film and focusing on using his leverage instead of overrunning plays. The extra preparation paid off last week, as he recognized on film the Penn State play that resulted in his pick-six.
Shazier started the final three games of 2011 as a true freshman and finished with 57 tackles. But he was far from a polished player at linebacker. He played that position as a high school freshman, but during his sophomore year his coaches lined him up at defensive end on a passing down. They discovered that no one could block him there, so defensive end became his new home.
"We always knew he needed to get accustomed to playing linebacker and tackling in space," said his father, Vernon Shazier. "Right now, he's probably still playing on about 70 percent athleticism. As he gets more comfortable and confident at the linebacker position, the game will slow down."
Shazier originally committed to play at Florida for Meyer. But when Meyer announced in December 2010 that he was stepping down for health reasons -- for real that time -- Shazier decommitted. His father said LSU and Ohio State were on Plantation's campus later that same day to make their pitches to the All-American recruit, and since Ryan planned on enrolling in January, he had about a week to make a new decision. Vernon Shazier said then-Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel helped put the Buckeyes over the top.
We all know what happened from there. Tressel was forced to resign, and after a year under interim coach Luke Fickell, Meyer took over the Buckeyes.
"It was crazy," Shazier said. "He was like, 'I always knew I was going to coach you.' Now, I've got the two coaches I always wanted in Coach Fickell and Coach Meyer."
Make that three coaches. His father coached high school football for 12 years and the ordained minister makes his living as a leadership trainer, motivational speaker and chaplain of the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Though he never coached one of Shazier's teams, he says "I'm always coaching him."
Dating back to Little League, father and son have talked before every one of Ryan's games. Ryan said he started to stress out last week because he almost missed a call from his father before the Penn State game. And after every game, Ryan calls Vernon to ask, "How did I do?"
"I try to help focus him on the little things he needs to do," Vernon Shazier said. "We pray. I try to calm and settle his nerves and spirit."
Shazier said he had to become a leader of a thin and inexperienced linebacker corps once senior Etienne Sabino went down with a broken leg. He's doing that now by playing his best football, and playing for more than just himself or his current teammates.