Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis doesn’t know who will start for him this fall.
Not at middle linebacker, where Tuf Borland’s status is uncertain after a recent Achilles tendon injury. Not at outside linebacker, where the Buckeyes must replace Jerome Baker and Chris Worley.
Yet Davis is hardly panicked. The Buckeyes are at least two deep at every spot, and competition is intense.
“We have a six- or seven-man competition going on that really is testimony to the type of recruiting we’ve done and the guys we have,” Davis said Wednesday.
Coach Urban Meyer likes the progress.
“That's one of our better units as far as getting better,” he said on Monday.
It needs to improve. Linebacker play was inconsistent last year, and mistakes by that unit stood out in the Oklahoma and Iowa losses. Davis was the only Buckeyes assistant coach not to get a raise for 2018.
“There’s always pressure and I always have to get it right,” Davis said. “There is the pressure to get it right. I’m confident with how we’re handling it right now. You play the hand you’re dealt, and I’m excited about the hand I’m dealt.”
The Buckeyes hope to get Borland back in September. In the meantime, redshirt junior Justin Hilliard and sophomore Baron Browning are competing at middle linebacker. Both are former five-star recruits. Hilliard has twice had seasons ruined by biceps tears — one in each arm — but is healthy now.
Asked if ever thought his career might not ever get back on track, Hilliard replied, “Maybe for a split second, but all my teammates, all the linebackers were there for me every time I got hurt, picking me up.”
Davis and Meyer have raved about Hilliard this spring. Browning earned a “champions” designation in Ohio State’s intrasquad scrimmage a week ago, though Davis said his youth still shows.
The strongside and weakside linebacker spots are mostly interchangeable, Davis said.
“Everybody is taking notes for every position and learning every position,” junior Malik Harrison said.
Harrison, who saw extensive playing time last year, is the favorite for one of the outside spots. Early-enrollee freshman Dallas Gant is behind him.
“Dallas should be in high school right now,” Davis said. “He is such a special young man in his intelligence and work ethic. As freshman go, he is ahead of the curve.”
At the other outside linebacker, junior Keandre Jones and sophomore Pete Werner are competing.
“I’ve been here two years now,” Jones said, “and it’s time to fill that role of being an older guy and a leader to the younger guys.”
The oldest guy in the unit is fifth-year senior Dante Booker, who’s recovering from shoulder surgery. A starter at outside linebacker at the start of 2017, he didn’t play up to standard and didn’t regain his job after missing time because of a concussion. An erroneous report at the start of spring practice said he was planning to transfer.
Davis said that Booker “absolutely” remains in the mix.
“Right now, Dante is 100 percent in our plans,” he said. “We’re excited about Dante.”
Freshman middle linebacker Teradja Mitchell is another linebacker who could figure into the mix after he enrolls in June.
“I’m so excited about the group I’m working with,” Davis said. “They are talented. They are all-in. They are grinding. It matters to them. I have no worries. The next man will step up. This is a talented group of linebackers at Ohio State.”