- Austin Ward, ESPN Staff Writer
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Heading into the new year and offseason workouts, BuckeyeNation will look at some holes left by the departing Ohio State veterans and potential candidates to fill them.
Who: Neither senior was able to give a full season at linebacker, though it was an injury for one that helped open the door for the other to prove he was equally skilled on the defensive side of the ball after establishing himself as perhaps the best fullback in the Big Ten before that. After how much Etienne Sabino and Zach Boren offered the Buckeyes in what amounted to half of a year each, there's no question Urban Meyer would give plenty to have them back for one more run with the program -- particularly given the lingering depth concerns at the position. Boren was a natural at middle linebacker and provided invaluable leadership during a rocky defensive stretch in the middle of the season. Sabino blossomed as his career with the Buckeyes wound down, giving nearly every column on the stats sheet before a broken leg interrupted his last season. Both leave plenty of responsibilities behind, both on and off the field.
By the numbers: Given a full slate at linebacker, Boren might have been able to give leading tackler Ryan Shazier at least a run for his money on top of the defensive leaderboard. The playmaking sophomore finished 44 tackles clear of anybody else on the roster during his breakout campaign, but Boren was on pace to join him and hit 100 tackles given the rate he was piling up hits during the second half of the season -- which at least would have trimmed Shazier's margin down to 15.
Job description: The Buckeyes have a head start thanks to Shazier's emergence on the outside and the fact that he'll be back as a junior next fall, but there are two gigs available next to him -- and the auditions for them figure to be the most closely watched of any vacant positions during spring practice and training camp. Defensive coordinator Luke Fickell needs a hard-hitting presence in the middle with a high football IQ to complement the physical skills, a role Boren filled perfectly after picking it up on the fly in the middle of the season. Opposite Shazier, the Buckeyes will be looking for somebody with good lateral quickness, great awareness and the ability to diagnose plays and finish when they come his way.
Top candidates: There are still a couple high-profile recruits on Ohio State's board heading into the homestretch before national signing day, but Meyer made signing linebackers a huge emphasis last year and appears to have enough options on campus already to pick up the slack. The Buckeyes rolled out four of those true freshmen for limited action on defense or more substantial time on special teams during their unbeaten season, and that early experience will be a benefit heading into the offseason and 15 critical spring practices. Jamal Marcus, David Perkins, Camren Williams and Joshua Perry are all knocking on the door, and the opportunity to walk through and play substantial roles is there for the taking.
One to watch: Sabino might be the perfect example to prove that a junior season isn't exactly a make-or-break moment in a career, but given the enormous expectations and the slim production so far, Curtis Grant is probably facing one of those pivotal points for the Buckeyes. Ohio State was planning on the former top-flight recruit manning the middle heading into his sophomore campaign last fall, but that quickly fizzled and he finished with just 8 tackles in 8 games. There's not much question that Grant has the physical tools, but it's time for him to put them to better use. If he can, the Buckeyes can turn a position that has some uncertainty right now into a legitimate strength.
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