As Ohio State opens spring football practice next week, The Dispatch will preview each position group. Today: Linebackers.
Returnees: Tuf Borland, redshirt senior; Baron Browning, senior; Tommy Eichenberg, redshirt freshman; Dallas Gant, junior; Justin Hilliard, graduate; Teradja Mitchell, junior; K'Vaughan Pope, junior; Cade Stover, redshirt freshman; Pete Werner, senior; Craig Young, sophomore
Departure: Malik Harrison
Early-enrollee freshmen: n/a
Summer-enrollee freshmen: Mitchell Melton, Cody Simon
There isn’t an obvious point of concern with Ohio State’s linebackers. At the start of spring practice, no position group enjoys as much continuity.
Ten of their 11 scholarship linebackers from last season’s team are back, the lone exception being Malik Harrison. Justin Hilliard, who was also a senior, received a waiver for a sixth season of eligibility approved by the NCAA. And two more freshmen joined the fold.
The real curiosity might be how exactly the Buckeyes plan to configure this bunch on the field with only so many spots available.
Tuf Borland returns as the middle linebacker, as does Pete Werner as the strong-side linebacker. Both are seniors and likely to hold on to their starting jobs. Borland has 34 career starts, and Werner has 27.
Other upperclassmen seem primed for expanded roles, a group that includes Baron Browning and Teradja Mitchell, as well as Hilliard.
Browning is a former five-star recruit from Fort Worth, Texas. He has made a series of highlight plays in his college career, and he contemplated entering the NFL draft before opting to remain in school. He ultimately might be the best pro prospect of the bunch.
Is this the time he becomes a full-time starter rather than a rotational player? If so, it might require a position switch.
Browning was listed as the backup behind Borland last season and has largely been viewed as an inside linebacker.
But the opening on the depth chart is at weak-side linebacker, the spot vacated by Harrison.
Spring practice might allow for Browning to work out there, and Harrison’s former backups juniors K’Vaughan Pope and Mitchell could also make a push.
Interestingly, some of Browning’s impressive moments came as he lined up as an outside linebacker. When he sacked Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke late in the third quarter in an October win over the Spartans, he burst from one edge of the line of scrimmage.
Health may also play a role in determining who will play where. Browning was sidelined for stretches last season due to injury, as was Mitchell.
Mitchell is considered particularly versatile. He was pushing Borland for the starting middle linebacker spot last offseason, then was used more at outside linebacker.
There’s reason to think Hilliard could find a bigger role, too. He was on the field last season despite tearing his Achilles tendon in spring practice before a six-month recovery.
Hilliard was most involved in matchups with run-oriented Wisconsin, the first one in late October and then in the Big Ten championship game, when he started as a fourth linebacker. The Buckeyes wanted to bolster their run defense with a 4-4 front against the Badgers’ traditional offense.
As Hilliard makes more progress in his recovery from the injury, he could also push for a bigger role in his final season.
Spring practice will be the first chance for the Buckeyes, including new defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs to tinker with the linebacker pairings.