Big Ten: Matt Wilhelm

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

If dues-paying was an official NCAA statistic, Austin Spitler would be among the national leaders. 

Few players have remained on the runway as long as Spitler, waiting for their careers to truly take flight. He redshirted at Ohio State in 2005 and watched as James Laurinaitis stepped into a featured role following two key injuries at linebacker. For the next three years, Spitler backed up Laurinaitis, who became arguably the most decorated linebacker in Ohio State history.

 
  Jeff Mills/Icon SMI
  Austin Spitler, right, has been stuck behind James Laurinaitis the past few seasons, but is finally getting his chance to start.

Laurinaitis won the Nagurski and Butkus awards, twice was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and appeared in all 51 games the last four seasons, starting the final 39. 

"Spitler's been around forever," Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "But James never came out."

Laurinaitis has finally moved on to the NFL, and Spitler will take over a starting job this fall, either at middle linebacker or strongside 'backer. 

"Of course it's been tough," said Spitler, who has recorded 44 tackles (3 for loss) in his career. "There's been struggles, but then again, you've got to look at the light at the end of the tunnel and just know that your time is coming. Obviously, I always had this year in mind, that whenever James left, hopefully my time was there."

Spitler has logged only 99 minutes of field time in his career, but he'll be looked upon to help lead a Buckeyes linebacking corps that loses both Laurinaitis (993 career minutes) and Marcus Freeman (832 career minutes). The Buckeyes have reloaded at linebacker throughout coach Jim Tressel's tenure -- from Matt Wilhelm and Cie Grant to A.J. Hawk and Bobby Carpenter to Laurinaitis and Freeman -- but there's more uncertainty than usual heading into this season.

Despite his limited action in games, Spitler has seen what it takes to succeed. He worked alongside Hawk, Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel as a true freshman and competed with Laurinaitis and Freeman the last few years. Ohio State's tradition on defense isn't lost on the 6-foot-3, 234-pound fifth-year senior. 

"It's not just going to continue by itself," he said. "We have to make it happen. We want to have our own identity. You never want to let those guys down that paved the way for us and made the Ohio State defense what it is today."

Spitler isn't the most vocal player, but he also recognizes the leadership role he inherits entering the fall. Laurinaitis served as a captain in each of the last two seasons, and Spitler would love to follow the same path. 

"He's a senior now, and I'm really excited about his progress and his performance," Heacock said. "He's finally getting his shot, and he's taking full advantage of it. He's coming to work every day and doing a good job."

Spitler admits that transferring crossed his mind during the lengthy wait for playing time, but the coaches convinced him to stick it out in Columbus. It's a decision he doesn't regret. 

"I never once had a day where I said I wasn't going to work hard because I always wanted to be the best and that's what I strive to be," he said. "There's been difficult times, but just knowing there is light and there are better things to come, it's exciting."

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