IOWA CITY -- Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer wasn't always sure he had a player in linebacker Ryan Shazier.
In early September 2012, Meyer expressed lukewarm thoughts about Shazier, who picked up three starts the previous season. But over a 12-game period, Shazier proved first impressions aren't always accurate for new coaches.
"Ryan Shazier was very average as we started the season," Meyer said, "and became one of the best linebackers in the country a year ago as the season concluded."
A true junior from Plantation, Fla., Shazier led the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss in 2012 and ranked second in tackles with 115. He was a first-team all-Big Ten selection and honorable mention All-American, guiding the Buckeyes to a 12-0 record in Meyer's inaugural year. This year, Shazier has gotten only better.
Shazier is everyone's midseason All-American and with good reason. He's second in Big Ten tackles for loss with eight and ranks seventh in overall tackles per game (7.8). He earned his third career Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award with a 12-tackle effort against California. Shazier forced a fumble, picked up a sack and helped hold the Bears' national-leading passing attack to more than 100 yards below its average.
He chalks up his current performances to the techniques he perfected during the 2012 season under Luke Fickell, who slid from interim head coach in 2011 to defensive coordinator and linebackers coach last season.
"I feel like Coach Fickell helped me out a lot," Shazier said. "The second half of the season, I was working on my fundamentals and trying not to overrun plays and working on my tackling and those little keys helped me and were all the difference."
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Shazier is the sole returning starter in the No. 4 Buckeyes' front seven that has stayed stout despite the turnover. The Buckeyes rank sixth nationally in rushing defense (86.2 yards per game), 15th in total defense and 24th in scoring defense.
But Shazier is more than just a linebacker; he's an inspiration to the Buckeyes and the people around him. Last year against Penn State, Shazier changed his jersey number from 10 to 48 to honor a high school friend, who had died. Shazier recorded two sacks, seven tackles and returned an interception 17 yards in the win.
This year, Shazier changed his number from 10 to 2 to honor Ohio State's defensive leader, safety Christian Bryant, who suffered a season-ending broken ankle against Wisconsin.
"Ryan, he's one of the most incredible young men I've always been around, and he's been raised that way, too," Meyer said. "He's got a really wonderful family. When Ryan comes to me like that, I'm like, settle down, what's the best thing to do and how does it affect our numbers and all those things.
"Ryan, that's one of about 50 ideas he always comes up with, but it's all pure you know, pure ideas and caring in its pure form, which is kind of cool."
Shazier doesn't provide the vocal leadership like Bryant or last year's all-world captain John Simon. But he knew this spring he was charged with helping mold a young, but talented, front seven.
"I feel like it was my responsibility to push the group a little bit," he said, "but we have some great leaders on our D-line."
Shazier is a clear target in Iowa preparation. Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said Shazier is equally competitive against the run and the pass, while tackle Brett Van Sloten touted Shazier's versatility.
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"He does all the things good linebackers do," Ferentz said. "He's got a great instinct, a great nose for the ball. When I use that word 'instinct', instinct is usually something guys develop, they don't just have it. My guess is he is probably a good student of the game. He knows how to be in the right spot at the right time."
"He’ll come downhill and he’ll hit you," Van Sloten said. "That’s a credit to him. He’s not afraid to come after you. We look forward to the challenge of going against him."
Shazier accepts the Hawkeyes' challenge.
"We’re going out there and try to win the game like it’s the World Series or a national championship game," he said. "We’re going to go out there fighting. We know this team is going to give us their best shot. It’s still going to be on TV. We’re still going to have 100,000 fans there watching. So we’re going to try to put on a show."