Tommy Eichenberg Ohio State Buckeyes Linebacker

Replacing Tommy Eichenberg: Cody Simon An Experienced Option For Buckeyes

(This is the first in a series looking at how the Buckeyes will be replacing their departed starters in 2024. Up first is the middle linebacker spot vacated by Tommy Eichenberg.)

After only playing in a total of five games over his first two seasons, linebacker Tommy Eichenberg leaves Ohio State with as many accolades as any Buckeye linebacker over the past decade-plus.

The 2023 season was Eichenberg’s fifth at Ohio State and it ended with him being the first Buckeye linebacker to ever win the Butkus-Fitzgerald Linebacker of the Year award, which was created in 2011 and has been given annually by the Big Ten to the conference’s best linebacker. That means former Buckeyes like Ryan Shazier, Raekwon McMillan, Darron Lee, and Jerome Baker never won the award.

Eichenberg started 27 games in his Ohio State career. He was a two-time All-Big Ten performer, and two-time Second-Team All-American. He finished his career with 268 tackles, 21.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, and two interceptions. This past season, he finished second the team with 82 tackles (behind linebacker Steele Chambers’ 83) despite missing three games with an elbow injury. He averaged 8.8 tackles per game over his final two seasons at Ohio State.

Whoever replaces Tommy Eichenberg will be replacing a two-time captain and the leader of a defense that defensive coordinator Jim Knowles once said would be at its best when it had “11 Tommy Eichenbergs” on it.

The Candidates

When you are attempting to replace a starting middle linebacker, it is always nice to be able to do it with a player who has starting experience like Cody Simon. But not only does Simon have starting experience, he is a fifth-year player who has had to prepare like a starter in Jim Knowles’ defense each of the past two seasons. Simon stepped in to start four games this year, including all three that Tommy Eichenberg missed.

Redshirt sophomore Gabe Powers played in 12 games as a redshirt freshman in 2023, seeing snaps on defense in three games. He was a prize in-state recruit in the 2022 recruiting class. Classmate CJ Hicks was a five-star prospect out of the Dayton area, but he projects more to the Will linebacker competition to replace departed starter Steele Chambers.

Redshirt freshman Arvell Reese spent time at both linebacker and defensive end last season but was back at linebacker in preparation for the Cotton Bowl against Missouri. Reese (6-3 235) certainly has the size for the position, but his versatility could see him also involved in the possible return of Knowles’ favored “Jack” hybrid linebacker/defensive end position.

Ohio State has also added true freshman Payton Pierce, who was one of the top linebacker recruits in the 2024 recruiting class. He has enrolled early, but the Buckeyes have not had a true freshman starter at middle linebacker since Andy Katzenmoyer in 1996.

Spring Outlook

Cody Simon will open up spring ball with the ones but will likely give way at times to the younger players so that they can get some good experience calling the plays with a loaded veteran group of defenders. The Buckeyes need to find out who else is capable of being the quarterback for the defense, and that process will ramp up in the spring.

When Ohio State does go offense vs. defense in practice, expect some of that to take place on two different fields between two entire offensive units vs. two entire defensive units, allowing for more reps for Gabe Powers and Payton Pierce, and perhaps Arvell Reese as well. With the interchangeability between the Will and Mike linebackers in this defense, it will be interesting to see if some of the projected Will backers get some snaps in the middle this spring.

Best Bet

The best bet here is that Cody Simon is Ohio State’s starting middle linebacker in 2024. He started three games there last year and nine games in the middle in 2021 as a sophomore. Simon finished fourth on the team with 57 tackles in 2023, seventh with 32 in 2022, and fourth with 54 tackles in 2021. Few teams have ever lost a two-time All-Big Ten performer and been able to replace them with a guy who has started games as both a true sophomore and true senior.

The Buckeyes’ No. 2 middle linebacker, however, is a bigger question mark. In terms of the depth chart, the battle to be the backup will likely be much more intriguing than the battle to be the starter.

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