Boren natural at LB

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The two-way action Mike Vrabel was famous for as a pro didn't require him to make a full-time switch in the middle of the season.

But the Ohio State defensive line coach at least knows a thing or two about what it takes to line up on both sides of the ball thanks to brief, highly successful appearances in short-yardage work on offense he used to make with the New England Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs.

Vrabel now makes sure to emphasize how limited his exposure was to how the other half of the roster lived, though it certainly helps to give him a better appreciation of exactly what former fullback Zach Boren has had to do to learn how to play linebacker for the Buckeyes on the fly in the middle of his senior season.

"I ran two routes and I didn't block," Vrabel said. "So that didn't take me very long."

Boren has a lot more on his plate trying to absorb the concepts, game plans and responsibilities as a defensive player -- and that is obviously taking up a lot more time to prepare. But with three games under his belt, his transition appears to be progressing just as smoothly as Vrabel made it seem years ago.

Without much depth to begin with at linebacker and then ravaged by injuries heading into a game Oct. 13 at Indiana, desperation forced the Buckeyes to turn to a former high school defender who was in the middle of one of the best seasons for a fullback in the Big Ten. Boren didn't bat an eye, accepting the challenge from Ohio State coach Urban Meyer to make a switch during a Tuesday practice. He followed that up with extra hours of studying with the defensive staff in what amounted to a crash course in his new role.

A respected captain with a strong work ethic, Boren wasn't opposed to doing extra homework in the past, either on film or in Ohio State's meeting rooms. But he obviously wasn't spending that time learning the defense, and suddenly he was starting from scratch for a team that was trying to stay undefeated and win a division trophy.

"I knew the offense like the back of my hand," Boren said. "Defense, obviously, has been a lot harder, and there's just been a huge learning curve for me. I do need to put in more time.

"I would say the first two games, there were times where I was just kind of running around and not really knowing what I was doing all the time. Against Penn State, I was finally a lot more confident in what I was doing and stuff started slowing down for me and I kind of knew what everyone around me was doing. I'd say each week the growth is there a lot more than in the past weeks."

The Buckeyes are running low on weeks at this point with just three games left on the schedule, starting with Saturday's home date with Illinois. But just a small sample has made it valid to wonder what Boren could have become at linebacker with more time to adapt.

He made his debut against the Hoosiers with seven tackles to lead the Buckeyes in a win. Over the last two games, he has added 12 more tackles and was one tackle behind Ryan Shazier with seven tackles at Penn State.

While there has been no shortage of admiration for what Boren has sacrificed for the sake of Ohio State, there's also now starting to be some recognition that he could provide even more.

"We're excited and happy to have Zach," Vrabel said. "I think he continues to get better every snap, every time he sees another rep. He's doing a great job, and it's an inspiration for us.

"The play he made the other night on a screen pass, just putting his head down, going and running, ran by a blocker and ran through a tackle. Those are the kind of plays that we need our inside linebackers to make."

Or, perhaps more accurately, the plays the Buckeyes need from their fullback.