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Another chance for Grant

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The position was open, and Curtis Grant was next in line.

There has never been any doubt about the Ohio State junior's athletic ability. He had an improved knowledge of the playbook heading into last season and no real competition for the middle linebacker job he assumed would be his.

But before the Buckeyes had even played a conference game, the starting spot was gone. A few weeks after that, a converted fullback had taken over the position and one of the most highly touted recruits in the country two years ago was pushed even further down the depth chart.

Working back through the checklist -- with Grant again in position to take over one of the most critical positions on the field defensively -- almost everything is the same. He's still a freakish athlete, still working extra hours breaking down film to expand his knowledge of the game and still somebody Ohio State has no problem publicly identifying as a difference maker.

But something needed to change for Grant to start fulfilling all the expectations that came with his high-profile recruitment, and a second consecutive season largely on the sideline helped him figure out exactly what it was.

"I got too complacent; that's the only thing I can say," Grant said after the second practice of spring on Thursday. "You know, when you run with the [starters], you take it as an honor, but then you get complacent and don't keep working as hard. Taking it for granted, taking the honor and praise, you get too complacent.

"Couldn't handle the glory of being a starter, I guess. Should have kept working harder."

The rapid fall from the lineup after three games didn't wind up keeping the Buckeyes from going undefeated last season, though it certainly made the journey a bit more rocky on defense. The linebacker corps was low on depth to begin with even before Grant's personal struggles and a couple key injuries forced defensive coordinator Luke Fickell to patch the unit together by moving Zach Boren over from fullback.

The almost instantaneous success of the senior only seemed to make Grant's apparent inability to transition from decorated high school player to reliable Ohio State starter all the more puzzling, particularly since there has rarely, if ever, been a negative word spoken about him from a coaching staff that isn't shy in its evaluations of the roster.

But if the biggest hurdle for Grant was mental, he has at least identified the problem.

"Everybody kind of matures at different times, and it's not that it's a lack of ability," Fickell said. "It's just having some confidence, it's the ability to let loose. ... Some guys just take a little more time to understand the game of football, to get confidence in what they're doing and to play ball.

"When there isn't competition amongst the group, I think it makes it very difficult. If somebody thinks they're going to be handed something, that's kind of what happened [last year]. Someone leaves and you think, well, I'm the next guy in. No, no, no. The next best guy is going to be in -- that's what we've got to make sure all those guys understand so they're always a little bit on edge and always trying to better themselves."

Grant has certainly seen how costly it can be when that edge gets rounded off, with his underwhelming two-year total of 10 tackles and the lack of playing time among a depleted group of linebackers last fall to show for it.

But the Buckeyes appear to have a rejuvenated, refocused Grant on their hands now. They also have more competition available as the Buckeyes try to fill the other two slots next to Ryan Shazier at linebacker with a couple more talented signees on the way in the fall.

And if those things combine to bring out the best in Grant, there's still plenty of time for Ohio State to take advantage of those physical gifts.

"This is big, very big for me," Grant said. "I'm very determined.

"Your junior year, if you don't do anything, there's no guarantee you're going to have another year to do it."