COLUMBUS, Ohio - It was supposed to be Etienne Sabino's time a year ago.
Then it quickly passed.
Instead of stepping in as one of the starting linebackers last season after being viewed as the sure-fire replacement for the departed Austin Spitler in the spring, Sabino was beat out for the job by Andrew Sweat in fall camp.
As quickly as Sabino was supposed to be the next big thing in Ohio State's linebackers corps, he became an afterthought. Having lost the job to Sweat, Sabino suddenly found himself accepting a redshirt year.
"It was extremely difficult," said Sabino, who was a spectator during Ohio State's 12-1 season capped off by a victory in the Sugar Bowl. "I would say it was probably one of the hardest years of my life."
Sabino is now a fourth-year junior after taking a rather unorthodox redshirt season in the middle of his career. For the four years he's been on campus, though, Sabino has become a fan favorite given his great athleticism.
With his large 6-foot-3, 240-pound frame and immense speed not usually accompanied by someone of that size, Sabino wasn't held back by his physical attributes. That combination of size and speed is a gift for any linebacker, naturally the cause for such great expectations.
It was Sabino's troubles completely grasping Ohio State's defense that has slowed him from being the next great Buckeye linebacker. Despite having great quickness, Sabino's hesitation caused by the slightest uncertainty caused him to struggle making plays consistently.
Despite signs that Sabino's time had come last year after Luke Fickell described him as more of a "reactor" rather than a "processor," the Buckeyes felt Sweat was the better option.
With the loss of both Ross Homan and Brian Rolle, Sabino finds himself in a situation where it is his time again. Frankly speaking, it is now or never for the redshirt junior.
"I think I really got a better grasp on the defense as a whole," Sabino said after a scrimmage in Ohio Stadium Saturday. "Like what the safeties are doing, what the defensive line is doing in front of you, what the corners have to do.
"When you're not out there thinking, you're just reacting," he continued. "You know what you have to do. You know what the guys in front you have to do. You can expect to know where the ball is going. It just helps your overall game and your overall football knowledge. Right now is probably the best I've felt."
Sabino may not have been ready to go last season, but the potential is obvious and the coaching staff proved it by offering him the chance to preserve what would have been his true junior season last year.
The decision to redshirt Sabino was simple - with Sweat on the field, Ohio State didn't want to burn a whole year of eligibility for a linebacker that has unmatched capability.
It was a sign of good faith, particularly because Sabino had already proven that he was an outstanding special teams player. And with Ohio State's struggles on special teams a year ago, Ohio State's coaching staff could have burned the redshirt to put him in the game for roughly five plays per contest.
Now Sabino has two years eligibility remaining and if all goes according to plan, Sabino will use those remaining years as a fixture in Ohio State's starting defense.
"The thing I see with Etienne right now is he's just working his tail off," defensive coordinator Jim Heacock said. "He's a guy that's obsessed. He's working out, he's over here watching film, and he's coaching the young guys."
Perhaps the reason Ohio State's coaching staff was reluctant to throw Sabino into games last year as a special teams player had to do with what they had noticed out of the linebacker in practice.
Sabino acknowledged that redshirting was a tough year, particularly after a spring in which he had repped with the first team for the majority of the time. Heacock, however, said Sabino made the best out of the opportunity to redshirt.
"The important thing of a redshirt is did you get better during the redshirt year," Heacock said. "If you're redshirting and you're like 'well I'm not playing anyways, so heck with it' then you don't improve and the redshirt is basically wasted.
"I think Etienne worked harder during his redshirt year. He was in the weight room, he was trying to get faster and stronger, so hopefully that pays off."
A year later and Sabino is back with the first team in spring practice this year. Judging by when Sabino is on the field, it is clear that the redshirt junior is viewed by the coaches as one of the two best linebackers on the team alongside Sweat.
In Saturday's scrimmage, Sabino was the quickest linebacker on the team, which could have been an indication that his previous struggles with hesitating due to uncertainty have vanished.
If that's the case, Sabino could be in line for a big year - this time as a starter.
"You hope he has success and you hope he comes on and becomes that player for you," Heacock said. "What happens a lot of times is when it's your time, you step up. At Ohio State, with the tradition and the legacies, when it's your time, you don't have a choice, you've got to step up."
Ari Wasserman is a staff writer for BuckeyeGrove.com. He can be reached at Ari@BuckeyeGrove.com.