Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington is afforded a luxury.
The position group that he oversees teems with an abundance of depth after it lost only one scholarship player, Malik Harrison, from last season’s team.
That development led Washington to craft a new approach for spring practice, one that prioritizes versatility among the Buckeyes’ returning linebackers.
Their first two workouts have already seen a handful of linebackers switch spots in their configuration. Notably, outside linebacker Pete Werner has lined up inside, and inside linebacker Baron Browning has gone outside.
“We can utilize our talent a lot better, because now we’re not pigeonholed,” Washington said before delving into defensive football terminology.
“We don’t have two Mikes (middle) and four Wills (weakside) and all that; we got linebackers. Everybody has a chance to identify the basics of that spot, and then we can be creative. I think it makes them more valuable.”
Their spots might become more fluid this season as Ohio State’s coaching staff looks to put more linebackers into a rotation.
The Buckeyes already return four seniors, including returning starters Tuf Borland and Werner. Also, juniors Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope appear primed for larger roles.
“That’s where we’ve got to do a really good job,” Washington said. “It’s our job to figure out how to keep guys engaged and give them roles and give them an opportunity to contribute because we need them.
“The way I look at it, the first two teams, those are all one. We have to do a really good job of trying to create roles, think outside the conventional defense and put guys in roles so that they can do what they do best.”
Washington considered upperclassmen, who were familiar enough with their previous roles, to be experienced enough to handle new ones. He mentioned Browning and Werner as able to fit in at other spots.
Browning could thrive as an outside linebacker because of his pass-rushing ability, Washington believes, and Werner could fit as an inside linebacker, able to play “in the box” closer to the front of the offensive line rather than dropping in coverage or flowing to the sideline.
Both linebackers were receptive to the idea.
“The versatility piece is nice, having the ability to play different spots on the field,” Werner said. “But I’m just doing what coach told me to do. I don’t really know the benefits side of it. I’m just kind of doing what I’m doing. Hopefully, they see something out of it.”
When the Buckeyes held their first spring practice Monday, Werner said it was the first time he had lined up inside and observed he was “sloppy” while making the adjustment.
Browning sounded more eager for a new role. He was a reserve last season, largely a rotational player situated behind Borland, a veteran starter.
A new role might mean better odds for playing time, and it was at a spot where he had some experience, noting he had previously played outside linebacker.
“I feel like it's more of my natural position that I played in high school,” Browning said. “It’s something that I feel comfortable doing, and I’m excited for.”
If he sticks outside, Browning said he expects to have a “little more freedom” on the field, possibly as a pass rusher. Even while rotating last season, he still pressured quarterbacks, totaling five sacks, third-most on the team.