Pete Werner returns home to play Saturday as if this game was a given on the Ohio State schedule.

The Indianapolis native will play for the Buckeyes against Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium for the third time in as many years.

“It feels great,” Werner said. “I feel like now it's assumed to go there every year because I'm now going up there for the third time. So it's like if I don't go up there, it's obviously a bad season and something that nobody on this team wants.”

But the feeling this year is different for the junior than it was the linebacker's first two seasons. As a freshman, he played on special teams. Last year, he was part of a defense that was often a liability. Now, Werner is part of a defense that has stifled offenses all season.

Werner isn't the biggest star on the defense. But the honorable mention All-Big Ten player is an essential piece of the puzzle because coaches deploy him in multiple ways. At times, he has even lined up as a safety.

“He covers tight ends, he plays in the run game,” coach Ryan Day said. “He can do so many different things. He gives our defense such versatility because he has such a unique skill set.”

Werner committed to Notre Dame as a student at Cathedral, the same high school that produced Buckeyes and current Washington Redskins rookie star receiver Terry McLaurin. Werner flipped to Ohio State after attending the 2016 Ohio State-Michigan game.

He said a couple of weeks ago that the excitement at that double-overtime game made him want to be a Buckeye. It wasn't quite that simple.

“I was looking for the best academic school with great football and Ohio State was one of those,” he said.

His conversations with players and coaches also swayed him. They didn't sugarcoat how demanding Ohio State would be.

“They told you it was hard,” Werner said. “They told you how workouts went, the practice schedule, and what it was going to be like your freshman year — unlike other schools that just told you how great this university was, the players loved it, everything like that.

“They said it was going to be really hard, but what you put into it is what you're going to get. And I like that. That was really the deciding factor for me.”

Werner has always relished hard work, on the field and in the classroom. His grade-point average in high school exceeded 4.0. He's enrolled in the rigorous Fisher School of Business and has a 3.3 GPA while balancing the demands of football.

“A lot of my determination comes from my family,” Werner said. “I was kind of born with that edge to me. It all starts with my dad, but I just learned a lot going to a great high school and learning what it meant to have a great work ethic.”

Werner's dad, Greg, was a tight end in the NFL for two years after playing at Division III DePauw University in Indiana. He's now an orthodontist. Werner's mom, Nancy, was a multi-sport star in high school. His older brother, Dan — Pete is the third of four kids — played football for Harvard until an injury ended his career.

“I don't want to say he was always a perfect angel,” Greg Werner said of Pete, “but he's really a pretty doggone good kid. He was not a difficult child to raise.”

He describes his son as being on the quiet side. He said Pete has plenty of friends but isn't usually the center of attention.

“He'll contribute to the conversation but won't lead the conversation,” Greg said.

Pete has always been driven. He overcame three labrum surgeries — on both hips and a shoulder — to become a four-star prospect at Cathedral. But in Ohio State's ridiculously talented 2017 recruiting class, he ranked 18th of 21 incoming Buckeyes.

Because of that, it was a bit of a surprise when Werner earned a starting job as a sophomore. Last year proved to be a frustrating one for him and the entire defense because of that unit's struggles. Werner became one of the lightning rods for frustrated fans.

“There were really negative comments and you just kind of had to let that go,” he said.

The critics have been quieted this year as the defense has flourished, with Werner playing a key role. He runs 40 yards in 4.5 seconds, has good instincts and is clearly a student of the game.

Defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley was effusive about Werner's value.

“Really important,” Hafley said. “You can see all the different things that he's had to do, and he's been put in some difficult situations lately.

“His (pass) coverage, the way tackles, the way we can drop them back in the middle field in the deep half, he's so versatile. And he's so tough. He loves football and he's so much fun to be around. He's so locked in. He's the type of guy I dream about coaching.”

Werner revels in being part of such a dominating defense.

“I knew that once we were able to be confident in our game plan, that's when everything was going to change,” he said.

“It's just unbelievable what the coaches are placing on us, because we're executing at such a high level that they're willing to put in these different calls just to see us execute them. I'm just excited that the coaches have the confidence in us as we do in them.”

Werner will have plenty of family and friends at Saturday's game. For Greg Werner, he'll attend with a different mindset than a year ago when he watches his son and the Ohio State defense.

“Last year we were on pins and needles,” he said. “This year, I watch it with confidence.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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