Ryan Shazier knows how good Martavis Bryant is. And Martavis Bryant can say the same about Ohio State's standout linebacker. The two played against each other in the final college game of their careers when Ohio State faced Clemson in the 2014 Orange Bowl this past January. In one of the best Orange Bowls to date, Bryant's Tigers overcame a nine-point second half deficit to defeat Shazier's Buckeyes, 40-35.
Both players made significant impacts in the game. Shazier tallied nine tackles for OSU's defense that included seven solo stops. Bryant hauled in two touchdown receptions, his second score giving Clemson a 34-29 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
The Orange Bowl was the culmination of successful college careers for Shazier and Bryant. Thrown into the fire during his freshman year, Shazier played in all 13 of OSU's games that season. Playing on an undermanned Ohio State defense, Shazier made an immediate impact, recording 15 tackles against Penn State and 10 more against Florida in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
Shazier was a tackling machine for OSU down the stretch in 2013, totaling 61 tackles during a four-game span that included 19 against Indiana. His draft bio on NFL.com stated: "Highly productive, disruptive playmaker vs. the run and pass. Shoots gaps and plays behind the line of scrimmage (compiled 39.5 TFL the last two seasons). Agile to slip blocks. Quick, strong hands to shed. Knifes gaps and flows very well laterally. Striking tackler -- uncoils on contact. Excellent speed and range -- opens up his stride in space and really covers ground. Bends naturally. Changes direction and accelerates with ease. Explosive first step as a pass rusher -- shows the ability to dip, bend and run the arc low to the ground. Ample athleticism and flexibility to mark backs and tight ends. Led all players at the combine with a 42-inch vertical jump and blazed a sub-4.4 40 time at his pro day. Four-down utility. Arrow is pointing up"
Shazier solidified his place as one of the premier linebackers in college football in 2012, tallying 115 tackles while recording five sacks for the undefeated Buckeyes. He notched 144 stops last season that included seven sacks as the unquestioned leader of Ohio State's defense. While he's not a big football player, Shazier's speed and ability to cover receivers as well as rush the quarterback will surely help a defense that has been criticized for being on the slow side over the past few seasons.
2014 Steelers Draft Picks
Bryant enjoyed a breakout season for himself in 2013. Playing alongside first round draft pick Sammy Watkins, the 6'5'', 200 pound Bryant hauled in 42 catches for 828 yards and seven touchdowns. What should excite Steelers fans is Bryant's flair for big plays. He averaged 19.7 yards per catch in 2013 and a staggering 30 yards per catch in 2012. For his Clemson career, Bryant averaged 22.2 yards per reception.
It's no secret that Ben Roethlisberger wanted the Steelers to get him a tall receiver. Well, he got his wish in Bryant, who will vie for playing time among the team's bevy of talented receivers. Bryant's NFL Draft profile stated: "Excellent body length with a long, rangy frame. Very good straight-line, separation speed. Can drop his hips surprisingly well for as tall as he is and is fairly shifty after the catch. Good red-zone target -- effective making back-shoulder catches. Flashes the ability to climb the ladder and highpoint the ball. Has return experience."
While many focused on Clemson's other receiver, the Steelers opted to spend their first round money on other needs and taking a chances on a receiver in the later rounds. It's a low risk-high reward move for the Steelers drafting Bryant in the Fourth Round; and if the raw Bryant improves on several facets of his game (sub-par route running and inconsistent hands were among Bryant's downsides in his draft bio), this pick will be remembered as a steal.
Four months after their Orange Bowl duel, Shazier and Bryant will fight for the same cause as Steelers rookies. Let's hope they continue to stand out among their peers on the next level as they did on that January night in Miami.