Assessing 2011's most intriguing players, in no particular order. Today: Ohio State junior linebacker Etienne Sabino.
• Typecasting. All good Buckeyes know the importance of three things: a) Growing and grooming a quality Buckstache, b) Hating Michigan, and c) Churning out star linebackers. On the latter front (conspicuous lack of Spielmanian excellence notwithstanding), Jim Tressel's tenure has been a virtual assembly line: Witness nine draft picks (departing starters Ross Homan and Brian Rolle will soon make eleven) three All-Americans and a Butkus Award at the position since 2001. And none of that number arrived in Columbus with more advance hype than Etienne Sabino in 2008.
Then, Sabino was unanimously considered one of the top handful of incoming linebackers in the country and the next great link in the chain. Three years and zero starts later, he's more Mike D'Andrea than Marcus Freeman or A.J. Hawk: On the heels of a midseason redshirt last year as a true junior, Sabino looks like the resident underachiever in a once-feted recruiting class that now threatens to send the program into a spiral: With newly embattled coach Jim Tressel joining three of the '08 class' brightest offensive stars on the bench for at least five games, all of a sudden Sabino's emergence on an attrition-ravaged defense could be a sink-or-swim proposition for the entire team.
• Best-Case. Sabino's only notable contributions to date have come on special teams, where he returned a blocked punt for the only touchdown in the Buckeyes' 16-3 win over Purdue in 2008 and added a couple of big hits on kickoffs:
Obviously, he's willing and able to knock heads. Both the initial scouting reports and NFL-ready size (he was listed last year at 6-3, 240) peg Sabino as a classic OSU run stopper — the straight-ahead/sideline-to-sideline speed is good enough, but he really excels with contact, shedding blocks and finding the ball between the tackles.
Generally speaking, if you're playing linebacker for Ohio State — especially if you're playing outside linebacker — this is probably your M.O. The Buckeyes have finished in the top ten nationally against the run three of the last four years, and the guy Sabino's vying to replace on the weak side, Ross Homan, racked up a team-best 180 total tackles en route to back-to-back All-Big Ten nods over the last two. The guy who played there before him, Marcus Freeman, was also All-Big Ten. And the guy who played there before him, Bobby Carpenter … well, you get the idea.
• Worst-Case. It's not like Sabino's just getting his first opportunity here after paying his dues behind a reliable vet: He's been beaten out for a starting job two years in a row by two different guys at two different positions — Brian Rolle on the inside in 2009, Andrew Sweat on the outside in 2010 — which is not exactly the hallmark of a rising star. The competition this time is coming from Dorian Bell, a third-year sophomore who came with five-star credentials in 2009, and likely also from another mega-hyped signee, incoming five-star Curtis Grant, both of whom have Sabino's athleticism and actually are getting their first real opportunities to live up to the advance billing that's dogged their rival so far.
• Fun Fact. Sabino was considered a fast riser in recruiting circles after his junior season at Dr. Krop High in Miami, which may explain why his mother was so overwhelmed by the attention when the calls started rolling in — all at once:
"I was in school and I got taken out early because I had to take my mom to the airport and on the way there I was just talking to all these coaches and my mom almost busting out in tears," Sabino said. "It was shocking, very shocking."
Still not quite as shocking, though, as his eventual decision to commit to Ohio State: The Buckeyes weren't among his initial top five schools, and he was alternately considered a lock for Miami, Notre Dame and USC before he put on a block 'O' cap that November.
• What to expect in the fall. A quietly solid, honorable-mention-All-Big-Ten kind of season that establishes Sabino as a mainstay in another top-20 Buckeye defense. The real question is how quickly the unit as a whole gets there. It's easy to think Ohio State is going to be fine defensively no matter who ends up with the job, because Ohio State is always fine defensively. The truth is, the first five games are going to be a tightrope: The Buckeyes are down not only four key, senior offensive starters due to the suspensions, but also seven departing senior starters from the Big Ten's best defense. At least four of the newcomers on D are likely to be sophomores, or possibly freshmen.
As little as he's played defensively — and last year he didn't play at all — Sabino still gives OSU the best chance to round out another starting linebacking corps made up entirely of upperclassmen, in a lineup that needs them. Given the inevitably rocky, conservative start from an offense missing a huge chunk of its production with the starting quarterback, leading rusher, top deep threat, starting left tackle and longtime play caller on ice for more than a month, there's no margin for growing pains.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.