Strong linebacker play has been a trademark of Ohio State football for decades. While another school may have been given the title ‘Linebacker U’, few teams have matched the consistent excellence Buckeyes have brought to the position.

At the start of the season, Ohio State had two sure things at linebacker in Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, and one pretty big question mark on the strong side. Given recent history at the position and the talent waiting in the wings, however, there was little question that the Buckeyes would successfully fill the void.

Determining exactly who would fill that void was one of the more interesting stories of the off season. Etienne Sabino appeared to have the spot locked up following the spring, but Andrew Sweat returned from injury in the fall and quickly passed Sabino on the depth chart.

In a surprise move by the coaches, Sabino went from the presumed starter to taking a redshirt year. Saving Sabino’s eligibility will benefit depth in the future, but made him a non-factor for the 2010 season.

Even with Sabino out of the picture, Ohio State still had plenty of talent and depth in 2010. Here’s a look at how the Buckeye linebackers performed this season.

#36 Brian Rolle [SR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
12 31 39 70 10 2.5 2 1

A senior captain, Rolle led the team through words and deeds this season at middle linebacker.

He not only had the most tackles on the team with 70, he also led in tackles for loss with 10, an extremely impressive feat from the middle linebacker position.

What started off as an experimental move in the spring two years ago has turned into a helluva run in the middle for Rolle. He is able to move sideline to sideline as fast as any linebacker in recent memory, and it is a thing a beauty when he successfully shoots through a gap into the backfield for another tackle for loss.

Rolle saved his best for last this season, recording 18 tackles and 5 tackles for loss in the final two games of the year. For his efforts, Rolle was named first team All-Big Ten by the media and the coaches.

Rolle’s combination of quickness in space and tenacity at the line of scrimmage will make him an invaluable part of the Buckeye’s effort to stop a very talented Arkansas offensive attack.

#51 Ross Homan [RS SR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
10 36 27 63 2 1 1 2

Another senior captain for the Buckeyes, Homan was second on the team in tackles with 63 despite missing over two full games due to injury.

While the injuries dropped his production significantly from last season, Homan is still one of the most important, if under appreciated,  play makers on the Buckeye defense. Homan did earn first team All-Big Ten recognition from the coaches this season, and his 278 career tackles are the 18th most by a defender at Ohio State.

Recognized or not, Homan is an excellent player who has a knack for creating a timely interception or forced fumble. With time to deal with any lingering health issues before the bowl game, Homan will be primed to show his tenacity and ball hawking skills once again in the Sugar Bowl.

Buckeye fans, take note and enjoy watching #51 play his last game in the scarlet and gray.

#42 Andrew Sweat [JR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
11 22 18 40 3 - 1 1

Despite being overshadowed by senior captains Rolle and Homan, Sweat has quietly put together a solid season as a first year starter.  Sweat’s playing time is often limited when Ohio State goes with the nickel package against passing teams, making his numbers all the more impressive.

Even though he is currently the first one off the field when Ohio State puts in different packages on defense, Sweat proved his versatility and ability to play every down while filling in for an injured Homan on the weak side.

Sweat will undoubtedly be a force at linebacker in the future, and a favorite to win any of the three linebacking positions next season.

Against an Arkansas team that likes to pass, it will be interesting to see how much Sweat is incorporated into the defensive game plan. Even if the Buckeyes choose to play out of nickel for most of the game, Sweat provides quality depth for the Buckeyes across the board at linebacker and will most likely see plenty of time on the field.

#32 Storm Klein [SO]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
10 9 7 16 1 - 1 -

While his statistics do not jump out at you, Storm Klein has played in almost every game of his young career, indicating that the coaches like what they see. Only a true sophomore, Klein’s best days are certainly ahead of him and he will be a strong contender for a starting spot next year.

In the mean time, Buckeyes fans can expect significant special teams contributions in the bowl game.

#55 Jon Newsome [SO]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
12 7 8 15 - - - -

Another young defender with a bright future, Newsome has the physical tools to be special. He has been getting time primarily on the strong side this season, and will be another strong candidate for a starting position in 2011.

The experience he has gained playing in all 12 games this season will be invaluable, and when his knowledge of the game catches up with his natural ability, he will be one to watch for.

Newsome won’t be expected to do much on defense in the Sugar Bowl, but with one blocked kick under his belt, here’s hoping he makes some noise on special teams.

#11 Dorian Bell [RS FR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
8 3 6 9 0.5 1

Bell started off the year with a bang by forcing a fumble on the opening kick-off against Marshall. Unfortunately, an exciting debut turned into a season of frustration as Bell was limited by injuries for several games.

Fortunately, Bell should be fully healthy in time for the bowl game, and at the very least he should be back on special teams. Who knows, maybe he will take out all of his pent of frustration on the opening kick and force another fumble.

Regardless, Bell is one of Ohio State’s most talented and exciting young linebackers, and he will be a strong competitor in the race for a starting spot in the spring.

#41 Tony Jackson [RS JR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
11 6 3 9 - - - -

A former walk-on, Tony Jackson is a great story and a solid contributor on special teams.

While he will never be expected to crack the starting rotation, his participation in 11 games this season is a testament to his work ethic and dedication to making the team better in any way he can.

#39 Jordan Whiting [RS FR]

GP Solo Assisted Total TFL Sacks Int FF
11 - 2 2 - - - -

Another special teams contributor, Whiting hasn’t had much of a chance to show what he can do in his young career. He has participated in 11 games this year, and his opportunities to play should increase next season as he competes for a starting position.

For the time being, his contributions will be limited to special teams in the Sugar Bowl.

And so forth…

In general, the production at linebacker in 2010 has gone down from last season.

While some might view that as disappointing, in context it makes sense given the increased production from pseudo-linebackers Nathan Williams and Jermale Hines (more on them in a future review) as well as some injury issues throughout the year.

Individual performances aside, the Buckeyes are ranked in the top 5 in almost every significant defensive category, so you can’t be too disappointed that production from individual players has dropped off from last season.

The bottom line is that Ohio State’s linebackers continue to lead one of the best defenses in the country, regardless of what numbers they may have. On top of that, it is exciting to think that the backers will be 100% healthy for the first time in months for the Sugar Bowl.

Brian Rolle and Ross Homan will be playing in their last game, and the young players will be proving themselves for the future. Sit back and enjoy the show.