Going to middle school

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The hype is building again. This time, Curtis Grant appears to know how to handle it.

The Ohio State sophomore has now been through the grind once and failed to meet the outsized expectations that come with signing as perhaps the top prize in the 2011 recruiting class. Grant still has those impressive physical tools that originally generated all that buzz, and in some ways he's improved them. But he learned the hard way it will take more than that to reach his potential and become the anchor the Buckeyes need at middle linebacker.

So one workout, one practice and one 15-minute mentoring session at a time, Grant set out to become the player most everybody expects him to be.

"A year ago I just came in wanting to earn a spot just like any other kid, but I just didn't show it," Grant said. "I talked about it, but I didn't show it.

"This year, it's kind of different."

The coaching staff has made it well known it needs a changed Grant, and that message seems to have sunk in after the four-star athlete spent his freshman season on special teams, only making two tackles.

It's a big leap to go from where he was a season ago to a projected starting spot in the heart of the Ohio State defense, particularly given the importance of his position, the responsibilities defensive coordinator Luke Fickell is handing him and the lack of depth overall at linebacker.

But Grant took over that role with an impressive spring, passing a returning senior in the process even before Storm Klein's dismissal. And even without much previous experience of his own, Grant has tried to carry himself like a veteran and set an example for a bunch of young linebackers.

That's led to better relationships with his teammates, a greater appreciation for practice that Grant doesn't hide and, thanks to mutually beneficial study sessions with his training-camp roommate, a clearer understanding of the defense and his role in it.

"I've really just stayed in my playbook, just doing the things I'm supposed to do," Grant said. "It's kind of like I'm an old head compared to the new guys coming in because when you're a new guy, you really don't know what's going on.

"Every night with Camren Williams, we hit the playbook for about 15 minutes just so we can get a feel for what we went over the last few days or the new install we've got to put in, so when he gets in, he knows what to do and he can run around and knock heads off. I'm at that point now where I just I react, and it's kind of like I want to just go, go, go."

The Buckeyes are certainly planning to turn Grant loose and are counting on him to deliver more than a couple knockouts this fall. But the issue a year ago wasn't whether or not Grant had the tools to give it a go defensively, it was whether or not he knew where he should be doing it.

On top of that, Fickell will be leaning on him now to understand where everybody else on the field is supposed to be -- and the true test is rapidly approaching.

"He's one of those guys that I promise you I'll lay my head at night on my pillow knowing that he's going to give me everything he's got," Fickell said. "You know, if you're going to be there as an inside backer, that's a leadership role. You have to have confidence in what you're doing. I think sometimes that was our biggest problem last year defensively. We just didn't have somebody who could get the thing set.

"You have [safety] C.J. Barnett behind you or [defensive end] John Simon in front of you, but it's really tough for one of those guys to really set it and try to do what they have to do. It really has to come from the core of the defense, and that's the thing up the middle."

By now, Grant should be used to being the center of attention. The next step is proving he belongs there.