COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Etienne Sabino might not even recognize the defense when he finally steps back on the field.
There's going to be a fullback lined up next to him. A guy who was largely limited to reps at defensive end is standing up more often and filling the void at the second level. There will be a more aggressive approach in the secondary behind him.
Ohio State might have wound up making most of the changes that have been a part of its defensive makeover during the last month even if the senior had stayed healthy all season. But the fractured bone Sabino suffered in his leg that forced him to miss the last four games seemingly has been the domino that led to all the recent reshuffling the Buckeyes have been forced to do, and now his likely return might allow them to do a bit more -- this time by choice.
"It's great to have him back out there, because he's got a lot of experience and it adds more experience to the linebacker corps," sophomore Ryan Shazier said. "It feels like we're going to be able to come out there and play a complete game.
"He's a great linebacker, and it's just good to have another dude out there we can trust."
The Buckeyes never had an abundance of them at linebacker heading into the year, though they largely survived the early stages of the season thanks to the productive tandem Shazier and Sabino quickly forged to get the ball rolling for an undefeated season.
But keeping that momentum going was no easy feat when Sabino was taken to the locker room in the first half of a win against Nebraska a little more than a month ago. The defense at times had counted on his partnership with Shazier as the two handled the majority of the work in a nickel package that obscured some of Ohio State's lack of depth at the second level. When the injuries mounted for a handful of freshman backups and with senior Storm Klein dealing with a bulging disc in his back, the Buckeyes had to get creative as they moved fullback Zach Boren over and handed defensive end Nathan Williams some responsibilities at linebacker as well.
Even with those tweaks, it has still been a challenge for the Buckeyes to really play their base 4-3 defense the way they might have planned. But heading into a game where they'll really need it against Wisconsin's rushing attack next week, Sabino might finally let them do it -- even if it's still not the one they drew up with Boren sticking around in the middle.
"That's our plan," coach Urban Meyer said. "If it's base, those are our three top guys right now. ... We'll probably be in more base than nickel [against the Badgers], so he'd be one of the three linebackers.
"He's had two good days, he's practicing. I mean, he's practicing -- he's still got a bit of a gimp, but he's practicing. Matter of fact, he's running with the first-team defense."
That unit obviously has had a different look without the veteran, who was playing easily the finest football of his career as he stuffed nearly every column on the stats sheet through the first five games of the season.
The Buckeyes have been surging defensively over the last couple weeks as Boren has adapted to his new role, the pressure packages have paid off, and Shazier has continued his emergence as one of the best young playmakers in the Big Ten. And while they've been getting by without Sabino, there doesn't seem to be much doubt they'll be getting a lot stronger with him.
"He's real excited," Shazier said. "He's into it, he's talking about it a lot, and we're all just ready. He's happy and you can tell. He's trying to do a lot around the ball, trying to get every extra rep he can get.
"He's going to be able to hold the leverage and help us stop the linemen from getting a push or whatever. He's a great linebacker, so he's going to be able to stop them from getting where they want to go."
Sabino also is returning just in time to help push the Buckeyes where they want to go over the next two weeks.