COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When the Ohio State football team takes the field on Saturday, it will be with Etienne Sabino for the first time in more than a month. And the return of the OSU linebacker couldn't have come at a better time for the Buckeyes.
With OSU's opponent for Saturday- Wisconsin- utilizing a run-heavy offense, the Buckeyes will find themselves in their "base" defense plenty on Saturday, a formation that they haven't primarily played since their Sept. 29 win over Michigan State. That will require the Buckeyes to field three linebackers at a time, something that hasn't always been easy for Urban Meyer to do in his first season at Ohio State.
Due to the lack of production that Meyer has received from his five freshmen linebackers, and the underperformance of true sophomore Curtis Grant, there hasn't been much doubt when it comes to which OSU unit has had the least amount of depth this season. That was before Sabino- a fifth-year senior and a captain on the OSU defense- left the Buckeyes' Oct. 6 win over Nebraska with a fractured fibula.
Seemingly forced to start either freshman Joshua Perry or Camren Williams in the expected four-to-six weeks that Sabino was expected to miss, Meyer decided he'd rather not. Instead, the first-year OSU coach opted to move starting fullback Zach Boren to linebacker, where he has often started in the Buckeyes' nickel package alongside sophomore Ryan Shazier.
Despite a slow start that saw the Buckeyes surrender 49 points to Indiana in Boren's first game in his new position, the OSU defense has come on in the last month, allowing an average of 14.3 points in its last three contests. Still, the return of Sabino will be a welcome one for a Buckeyes' squad that suddenly finds itself needing to field three linebackers at a time on a consistent basis for the first time in more than a month.
"You'd be in probably more base than nickel," Meyer said of playing Wisconsin. "He'd be one of the three backers."
Aside from the fact that Ohio State just needs linebackers, period, at this point in the season, Sabino's return brings the added benefit that he's turned into a pretty good one this season.
After an up-and-down four years in Columbus that saw him redshirt as a junior, the Florida native was putting together an impressive senior campaign, compiling 37 tackles, two sacks, and an interception in the six games he's played in. Before suffering his fractured fibula against the Huskers, Sabino had just started to play the best ball of his college career, being named the Buckeyes' defensive player of the game for his eight-tackle, one-sack performance against Michigan State.
Ohio State defensive end John Simon expects Sabino to pick up right where he left off when he takes the field on Saturday.
"He looks great. You can't even tell there was ever an injury," Simon said. "He's huge for us."
On top of what Sabino brings as a player, the Buckeyes will also enjoy the added benefit of having one of their five captains returning as an active player on Saturday. Meyer said on Monday that one of the most undervalued qualities that exists in football players is their leadership, which Shazier said that Sabino provides plenty of when he's out on the field.
"It's great having him out there because it adds a lot more experience to the linebacking corps," Shazier said. "He's a great linebacker and it's great just having another dude out there that we can trust."