The proverbial light has come on for Ohio State middle linebacker Storm Klein.
The junior from Newark (Ohio) Licking Valley is making the biggest impact of his collegiate career this fall. Through the Illinois game, Klein has recorded 22 tackles, including two tackles for loss, with a sack, interception, forced fumble and fumble recovery. He has also started six games, the first starts he’s made as a Buckeye.
“It’s my first year really getting out there and being in the thick of things,” Klein said. “It’s finally my time. I just want to be out there whenever I can and help out the defense, hustle around and be a physical presence in the middle. That’s what I’m supposed to do.”
Klein made his presence known at Illinois. He set up Ohio State’s second touchdown of the afternoon early in the fourth quarter when he came up with a big defensive play. On a second-and-4 at the Illinois 28-yard line, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase connected with A.J. Jenkins for a completion, but Klein raced to the ball and got there just in time to fall on a fumble forced by sixth-year senior Tyler Moeller.
Klein recorded three tackles against the then-No. 16 Fighting Illini, including two solo stops and one for a 2-yard loss. He also forced a fumble in the 17-7 OSU win.
Klein was a backup to senior Brian Rolle last season, making 18 tackles in limited action. He recorded four tackles in a game twice, reaching that mark in blowout victories against Ohio and Indiana. The 6-2, 240-pounder also intercepted a pass in the win against Minnesota and made two tackles against Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl.
Klein was a special teams mainstay as a freshman in 2009, and during that season and the 2010 campaign, Klein worked behind the scenes to learn the Ohio State defense. He said he accomplished that goal near the end of last season.
“I still learn things, but I’ve got the defense down finally,” Klein said.
Klein added that learning Ohio State’s defense is no easy task.
“We’ve got a lot of different schemes,” Klein said. “They try to make it simple, and they’ve done a better job of making it simpler this year with the game plans. … They just want to get us out there and have us react more than think about what we’re doing. It’s been a lot easier, but in the past couple of years it was tough.”
Klein splits time at middle linebacker with fellow junior Etienne Sabino. Klein has been working more on playing better against opponents’ passing attacks, something OSU head coach Luke Fickell credited Klein for Tuesday night.
“Storm’s growing. He really is,” Fickell said. “He’s a good, physical football player. He’s getting better in the passing game, and I think that’s the one thing you really notice.
“He understands football. We keep trying to remind those guys. It’s about angles (in the passing game). … It’s a definite growth, and I think I saw a big step this week (against Illinois) as well.”
When asked about his improvements defending against pass plays, Klein credited the man who replaced Fickell as Ohio State’s linebackers coach, former Buckeye and three-time Super Bowl champion Mike Vrabel.
“With Vrabel coming here telling us little tips from the league, it helps out a lot,” Klein said. “I credit that to him a lot and watching film and knowing what defenses are doing. … He breaks the film down and talks to you on your level where you can understand him as a player.”
Klein said his next step as a Buckeye would be becoming more of a leader on the defense. He does play a leadership role when he’s on the field, however, as the middle linebacker gets the play calls from the sideline and makes sure the defense is lined up properly before the snap. Klein called it being the “quarterback of the defense.”
Klein has to balance that responsibility with the need to be a playmaker.
“It’s a balance of both,” he said. “You get the call and you try to set (the defense) up, but when it comes down to it, when the quarterback gets under center you’re going to play football. I try not to think too much, just react, play on base fundamentals and go.”
Klein and Sabino could see time on the field together in Ohio State’s next game Saturday vs. Wisconsin. The Badgers again feature a power rushing attack, and Ohio State could use three linebackers on the field in its base defense a lot against Wisconsin. Moeller could also play the strongside linebacker spot, but there could also be times in which Klein and Sabino are on the field at the same time.
Klein for one is excited to face quarterback Russell Wilson, running back Montee Ball and the Badgers’ big, bruising offensive line.
“This is a front seven Super Bowl because it’s going to be a battle up front,” Klein said.
That is a fact that has Klein licking his chops.
“I just like to hit people,” he said. “I’m physical. That’s why they have me in there. That’s what I enjoy doing.”