A.J. Hawk could have left for the NFL after last season.
As a junior, the Ohio State linebacker finished second in the Big Ten in tackles and earned national recognition as a first-team All-America selection. But the humble Hawk chose to return to the Buckeyes for his senior season – which, luckily for the rest of the conference, is also his last.
“Consistency is always a great measure of performance, and he certainly has done it for a long time,” Michigan coach Lloyd Carr said. “I’ll be glad to see him leave.”
Now a senior, the Centerville, Ohio, native is one of three finalists for the Butkus Award – given annually to the nation’s top linebacker – and the centerpiece of Ohio State’s highly regarded linebacking corps. Through 10 games, only Hawk ranks among the top five in the Big Ten in tackles, sacks and tackles for loss.
After the Buckeyes’ blowout win over Northwestern last weekend, Wildcats coach Randy Walker said he had never seen a football player better than Hawk.
But even though Hawk garners the attention and accolades, seniors Bobby Carpenter and Anthony Schlegel – Ohio State’s other two starting linebackers – are almost as tough to contain and block. Carpenter sacked Michigan State quarterback Drew Stanton four times in the Buckeyes’ victory and ranks second in the Big Ten with eight sacks. Schlegel is known as one of the most intense players on the team and trails only Hawk among Ohio State defenders with 65 tackles.
Together, the Buckeyes’ top-three linebackers have amassed 216 tackles and 17.5 sacks. From the game tape, Michigan’s offense knows it has to find a way to contain all three.
“We’ve just got to make sure we get a hand on them all the time,” fifth-year senior Adam Stenavich said. “We’ve got to make sure they’re accounted for every single down because you can’t let them free.”
Added fullback Brian Thompson: “It’s going to be a crucial part of the game, taking them out.”
One way in which the Wolverines might adjust their offense in order to shut down Hawk and company is running plays where the tight ends act more like additional offensive linemen than receivers.
“This is a week where tight ends protecting might be a little bit more important,” fifth-year senior Tim Massaquoi said. “(The Buckeyes) come alive; they send their linebackers a lot because they’re playmakers.”
Massaquoi has seen fewer balls thrown in his direction all season, in part because of the wrist injury he suffered earlier this year. But even senior Tyler Ecker – who has caught 18 passes for 201 yards – may spend more of his time protecting the Wolverines’ backfield tomorrow.
While Michigan focuses much of its preparation on stopping the Buckeyes’ linebackers, they recognize that they will have their hands full with the Wolverines – especially their newfound depth at running back.
“Our main goal is to stop the run,” Schlegel said. “Their running backs run hard and try to get you off-balanced. Michigan is a hard, physical team.”