Ohio State middle linebacker Tuf Borland is down, but not for the count, and coach Urban Meyer has watched a couple of other players step up to the challenge the past couple of spring practices, not the least of whom was Justin Hilliard.
When it was learned Borland suffered an achilles' tendon strain in a practice last week that will keep him out indefinitely — though likely not for the season, Meyer said — Hilliard was thrust into the No. 1 spot, backed up by Baron Browning.
But losing Borland, a third-year sophomore who took over in the middle last year as injuries and then a reshuffle of the linebacker group saw him start nine of the last 11 games, is a blow.
“Tuf Borland, it just breaks your heart because he's one of the best kids I've been around in my life,” Meyer said after practice Monday. “A very good player. He'll be back.”
>> Video: Ohio State's Urban Meyer on Borland injury, Hilliard, Browning
Six practices into the 15 allotted for spring drills, Meyer and his coaching staff, including linebackers coach Bill Davis, rolled with the punch. They turned to Hilliard, a celebrated five-star member of the 2015 recruiting class who has fought through several injuries, including tears of each of his biceps on separate occasions, making do as a stellar special-teams performer more than anything else up to now.
“He’s had some injuries, like tough, tough (injuries),” Meyer said. “But I can’t ask for anything more (in terms of effort). He’s one of my favorite guys. He just goes as hard as he can. … So the light’s coming on and he’s doing pretty good.”
The Buckeyes already were replacing outside linebackers Chris Worley and Jerome Baker, who are headed to the NFL draft. Malik Harrison and Keandre Jones were at those spots Monday with the first team, just as they were when spring drills started the first week of March.
Running with the second team in the middle Monday was Browning, flanked by Pete Werner and early-enrollee freshman Dallas Gant. Like Hilliard, Browning was a five-star prospect. Browning saw limited time as a backup to Borland last season.
“He’s as talented a linebacker as has ever walked through these doors,” Meyer said of Browning. “He can do it all. He’s a great young man.”
Last year Browning “did not play well early in the season, he just was out of his comfort zone, and by the end of the season was really contributing in a lot of areas, special teams; he should have played some (more) defense but he just didn’t earn that yet.
“But he’s got it all now, he’s got A to Z, intelligent guy, good person, and God’s blessed him with an incredible skill set.”
In regard to the linebackers in general — including highly touted signees K’vaughan Pope and Teradja Mitchell, who are expected in June — Meyer gave a glowing forecast despite the gloom at the moment.
“Linebackers? I'm not concerned,” Meyer said. “Coach Davis is doing a good job, and there are some talented cats.”