Ohio State linebackers start fresh with new coach

Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State Buckeyes linebackers coach Al Washington answers a question during a February Signing Day press conference on Wednesday, February 6, 2019 at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in Columbus, Ohio. [Joshua A. Bickel/Dispatch]

Of all the new Ohio State assistant coaches, Al Washington might be the one most in the spotlight.

It’s not so much because he’s a Columbus native returning home after coaching at Michigan. It’s more because he oversees a position group that drew much criticism in 2018. Ohio State’s linebackers were often cited as a major culprit in a defense that surrendered the most yards and points per game at Ohio State.

Washington didn’t have much interest in revisiting last year’s issues. That’s a perk of not having been here for them.

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“Last year’s criticism — they lost one game,” he said. “Everybody’s got stuff to improve on, so I don’t really give it much thought, to be honest.”

Starters Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner return, but everyone has a fresh slate under a new coach and an altered scheme. Washington and his players were vague about the change in X’s and O’s, but they said that the defense has been simplified so that players can play fast without overthinking.

One change is using the strongside linebacker in a hybrid linebacker/safety role, at least in certain situations. The Buckeyes are calling the position “Bullet,” as in Silver Bullets. Brendon White, who made an impact as a safety late in 2018, is the leading contender for that spot.

That makes the competition for the true linebacker spots even fiercer. Harrison would seem to be close to a lock for one of them after he blossomed in the second half of last season.

After only four spring practices, Washington isn’t prepared to give a pecking order at linebacker. Last year’s problems aside, the position is loaded with players rated as blue-chippers entering college. Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard were five-star recruits. Dallas Gant, Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope were four-star prospects.

Now they are competing for playing time. Washington loves the competition.

“It’s been awesome,” he said. “Every kid knows that, so you get everybody’s best. Nobody’s comfortable. Nobody’s complacent. Everybody’s growth-minded. Everybody’s eager. Everybody’s bought into that and actually helping each other.”

The players appreciate the clean slate.

“You’ve got a new coach and new people,” said Borland, who struggled early last year returning from an Achilles injury suffered last spring. “There’s always a feeling you’ve got to re-prove yourself. For me personally, I feel I’ve had to earn everything I’ve gotten. This is just another test.”

The transition from linebackers coach Bill Davis, who has returned to the NFL, to Washington has been well-received.

“Just his ability to relate to players is what resonates with me,” Borland said.

For Washington, the emphasis now is on daily improvement, not settling spots. There will be time for that later.

“My initial impression is that they’re a high-character group, very talented, athletic, tough,” he said. “I think we’ve got a lot of room for development, just learning the defense.

“(But) they’re a great group. Great leadership. I’m really impressed by that.”

It’s easy to get compliments in March. What matters is what happens in the fall. After last season, the players can’t wait to prove that last year was an aberration.

“I feel we didn’t play up to par,” Mitchell said. “We didn’t play like the Silver Bullets play. We’re working back to get to that culture and that standard. We’re very hungry.”


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