The leader is gone, one starter is shifting positions and another projected starter is coming off an injury that cost him the final 12 games of last season.
Even with all that, the linebacker position at Ohio State figures to be a strength in 2017. Time will tell, but the Buckeyes feel quite good about a likely trio of Chris Worley flanked by Jerome Baker and Dante Booker.
Raekwon McMillan was the defensive leader last year as the middle linebacker. With McMillan now in the NFL, it’s up to Worley to fill that role. He relishes the idea of leading by example and words.
“What you really need is a quarterback on defense,” new linebackers coach Bill Davis said. “Chris is a great leader. He’s vocal. He’s very intelligent. He has a great football IQ. He went in there (during spring practice) and did a great job.”
Worley began his Ohio State career splitting time between safety and linebacker and, at 6 feet 2 and 230 pounds, doesn’t have prototypical middle linebacker size. But even at that position, speed is now more valued than bulk.
“Some people think sometimes you have to be bigger and thicker to be in there,” Davis said. “But in this day and age, with the spread offenses and the no-huddle, you don’t have to be as big as you used to be.”
Booker started last year but injured his knee against Bowling Green. Though he seemed on the cusp of returning for most of the rest of the season, he didn’t.
Worley said the time off has stoked “a burning desire to be great” in Booker.
“A lot of times, you see guys get hurt and they walk around with their head down and they’re like, ‘Maybe next year,’ ” Worley said. “Last year, I saw a guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. It just happened to be that his body wasn’t ready for it.
“When he was ready, it wasn’t smart to play him. Now that he’s back, the offense is going to feel him.”
The reason it wasn’t smart to play Booker late last year was the emergence of Baker, who became a star as Booker’s replacement. On a defense loaded with stars, perhaps no one had as many “wow” moments.
Now Baker is looking to build on that breakout season. Davis has been impressed by the junior’s off-the-field work.
“You tell him once and he gets it, and he asks real deep questions about it,” he said. “I’m very encouraged with where Jerome can go and his athleticism.
“He has a lot of position versatility. I think I could play him at any position, and he’d be fine.”
As good as the Buckeyes feel about their expected starters, they also believe their linebacker depth will be much-improved. Justin Hilliard, whose last two seasons ended prematurely because of separate torn biceps injuries, was one of the most impressive players of the spring.
Malik Harrison and five-star freshman Baron Browning are rehabbing after shoulder surgeries but are expected to be healthy for preseason camp and push for playing time. Tuf Borland and Keandre Jones also could work into the mix.
“I’ve told them that the best three or four are going to play,” Davis said. “We’ll find roles. Your job is to be as good as you can get and be a valuable asset to this team, and we’ll figure out how to get you on the field.”