'He's a serious dude': Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg keeps dedicated approach

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Tommy Eichenberg’s handwriting remains on the wall of his childhood bedroom in Westlake.

The pencil scribbles originated a few years ago, when he was attending St. Ignatius High School.

Eichenberg wrote down that one of his biggest goals was to receive a scholarship offer from Ohio State.

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The idea for this came from his mother, Heather, a high school intervention specialist who asks her students to make a note of one or two goals every quarter.

Tommy Eichenberg made 17 tackles in the Rose Bowl, the most by an Ohio State player in nearly a decade.

“It doesn’t have to be a long laundry list,” she said, “but you have to look at it and you have to be aware of what you need to do to reach it.”

She encouraged her three children to take up the same approach, a habit they would all form.

As he developed into a promising linebacker prospect, Eichenberg jotted down specific goals on his gray-colored bedroom walls that ranged from weightlifting targets and all-area team recognition to ultimately playing for the state’s flagship college football program, so much of an ambition that his parents have yet to wipe off the marks.

Tommy Eichenberg made 17 tackles in the Rose Bowl, the most by an Ohio State player in nearly a decade.

The etched goals help capture the essence of Eichenberg. His road to Columbus, where he was chosen as one of the Buckeyes’ six captains last month and is positioned to become a starting linebacker this fall, has been paved by a firm resolve.

“He’s definitely a lunch-pail guy who puts his head down and works,” said his father, Gregg.

Eichenberg’s dedication should pay dividends for a rebuilt defense, an offseason overhaul led by new coordinator Jim Knowles, that debuts in Saturday’s game against Notre Dame.

Going full speed

Longtime St. Ignatius coach Chuck Kyle had a reminder for Eichenberg.

It was delivered during walkthroughs and practice periods held at half speed. He pointed out to Eichenberg that he could slow down in those settings.

But Kyle knew that would be a challenge.

Tommy Eichenberg made 17 tackles in the Rose Bowl, the most by an Ohio State player in nearly a decade. He was named defensive MVP of the game.

“He had that one gear,” Kyle said. “Whether it was a game or practice, here he comes, and it’s like, ‘Tommy, not this drill. Settle down a little bit.’ But that’s who he was. It’s that tunnel vision. It’s time to play.”

It mattered little the sport. Eichenberg hardly rested.

Heather recalled pickup basketball games on the family’s driveway hoop, where he and his older brother, Liam, never let their sister, Bridget, prevail.

“They took no prisoners,” she said.

Eichenberg comes from an athletic pedigree, including on the football field. Liam was an All-American left tackle at Notre Dame before being taken by the Miami Dolphins in the second round of the NFL draft last year. His uncle, Shawn Finnan, was a defensive tackle at Marshall in the 1980s.

Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles calls linebacker Tommy Eichenberg a "serious dude." Says Knowles: “His pace of learning is fantastic.”

Eichenberg found himself at linebacker when he first joined the freshman team at St. Ignatius, one of the powerhouse prep programs in northeast Ohio. He started out at outside linebacker once he made the varsity team, then slid over to the middle as senior, a move that allowed him to gain more attention from college programs. Not long after the Buckeyes offer him a scholarship in late 2018, he flipped his commitment from Boston College.  

Kyle said his role at middle linebacker allowed him to be all over the field, impressing recruiters.

“He's in every play, whether he's blitzing, whether it's coverage, pursuit,” Kyle said, “and I think that tipped the iceberg.”

Eichenberg had 126 tackles and eight sacks that fall.

Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg (35) and cornerback Denzel Burke tackle Tulsa running back Anthony Watkins.

“Tom was just like a hunter,” said Ryan Franzinger, the Wildcats’ defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. “He went out and hunted the ball carrier, and when he pass rushed, he got there.”

His high school coaches saw glimpses of those performances in the Rose Bowl in January, where he made 17 tackles to help the Buckeyes overcome a 14-point halftime deficit to defeat Utah. Eichenberg was named the game’s defense MVP, and his tackles were the most by an Ohio State player in nearly a decade.

Tommy Eichenberg 's serious approach

When Knowles reviewed the progress of the installation of his defense last week, he reflected on Eichenberg. He mentioned Eichenberg had picked up the scheme faster than the any of the previous middle linebackers he had coached.

“His pace of learning is fantastic,” Knowles said.  

His knowledge of a position that involves a lot of pre-snap responsibilities casts him as an important piece of the defense.  

Ohio State linebacker Tommy Eichenberg was elected team captain this year.

“He’s just kind of a quarterback on the field right now,” coach Ryan Day said.

Eichenberg prioritizes studying X’s and O’s and pores over film. In addition to going over practice footage with Knowles and graduate assistants, he meets with center Luke Wypler to gain the perspective of an offensive lineman.

Part of his appreciation for film study centers on sorting out an opponent’s offensive game plan.

“I like seeing how teams attack different, what the offense is trying to do,” Eichenberg said. “There’s always a reason why they’re trying to do something.”

Understanding tendencies of an offense has long given him an advantage. It can help him diagnose a particular play and put him in the right position.

“That’s where he can get that extra step,” Kyle said.

In his role as a captain, Eichenberg isn’t likely to take on a talkative leadership role. He has long maintained a quiet demeanor. But his intense focus, carrying over from taking notes in position meetings to practices, can rub off on teammates.

“He's a serious dude,” Knowles said. “He just takes the game serious. He takes his learning experience serious. He wants to know things. He's not jacking around. Guys follow that. They see how he operates as a professional, and they pick up on it.”

Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at jkaufman@dispatch.com or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman

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