As Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck studied the Ohio State defense in preparation for Saturday’s game in Ohio Stadium, one thing in particular had to stick out. That No. 20, sophomore linebacker Pete Werner, is almost always on the field when the game is on the line.

“He’s just very active, very tough player, great tackler,” Fleck said. “He’s really good in space.”

Werner and fellow outside linebacker Malik Harrison have figured prominently in the Buckeyes’ run and pass defense schemes through the first half of the season, rarely leaving the field, while Tuf Borland and Baron Browning have shared playing time in the middle.

Though it’s true that Werner doesn’t lead the team in tackles — safety Jordan Fuller holds that distinction with 27 participations, followed by Harrison with 25 —  of Werner’s 18 stops, 15 have been solo.

And last week against an Indiana offense that threw 49 passes, Werner had three pass breakups, the most among the Buckeyes. That’s another reason he pops on video: One minute he’s down inside the tackle box, the next he’s out in the flat chasing a ball carrier or in coverage.

What also comes through is Werner’s nose for the ball, or at least the desire to get into the mix from play to play.

On the Buckeyes’ final defensive play in the win at Penn State two weeks ago, Werner stepped in and took on a block from the center as lineman Jashon Cornell attacked the gap between the right guard and tackle. That opened the seam for defensive end Chase Young to loop in and cut up through the A gap to nail the running back for a 2-yard loss.

“He’s incredibly instinctual,” Fleck said. “As a linebacker, the best quality you can have is your instincts. The closer you get to that line of scrimmage the more instincts you have to have, especially down in that box. That’s what I think he does for them.”

From Cathedral High School in Indianapolis, Werner stepped forward in the spring and preseason this year to claim a starting job, and OSU coach Urban Meyer indicated he expects Werner only to improve.

“He’s an elite player, an elite person. He’s a very gifted, talented guy,” Meyer said. “He’s big, fast, extremely smart, and he really cares. So yeah, he’s got an incredible future.”

tmay@dispatch.com

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