Coaching change lifts Browning's game

Bill Rabinowitz
brabinow@dispatch.com
Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning tackles Florida Atlantic Owls receiver Willie Wright in the season opener on Aug. 31. Browning said he is less tentative and reacting more quickly this season. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

Baron Browning had his chance to seize the Ohio State middle linebacker job last year. He didn’t take it.

It was a humbling season for the former five-star prospect, who was ranked as the 11th-best overall player in the 2017 recruiting class. Tuf Borland had injured an Achilles tendon during spring practice last year and missed the first part of the season.

Browning had the opportunity to stake his claim to the job. Instead, he looked tentative.

Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter

He looks anything but that this year. Like so many others on the Buckeyes’ rejuvenated defense, Browning is playing with speed and swagger. Heading into a game Saturday against Michigan State, the junior from Texas is third on the team with 21 tackles, including four for a loss, while sharing time with Borland.

“It’s been really great to see him take a step,” defensive co-coordinator Jeff Hafley said Tuesday.

There was never a question about Browning’s talent. He’s big, fast and strong. But by his admission, until this year he was thinking too much on the field and not simply reacting.

He acknowledged that he wasn’t “a big film guy” early in his career. He is now. New linebackers coach Al Washington describes him as one of his most diligent players. Clearly, coach and player have clicked.

“I definitely feel experience goes into it, but I just think the way coach Washington is coaching me this year, I feel more comfortable,” Browning said. “I'm just adapting his mindset to my approach.”

He said one area in which he has improved under Washington is more effectively using his hands to fend off blockers.

“He’s talented,” Washington said. “He’s worked. I do think we have a good relationship. It’s honest. He has a relationship with my wife, with my kids. I think all that stuff is important. He’s a good kid. He wants to do well.”

Washington believes that candor is essential. He can tell him when things are right and when they’re not.

“Through that process, I think we’ve grown closer,” he said.

Outside linebacker Pete Werner plays next to Browning. He notices the difference in him this year.

“I can just see he’s more confident,” Werner said. “He’s just a step quicker. I think it’s knowing that it’s his year. He knows his importance. That’s transitioned into his head. He knows he has to go hard and make a difference on this defense.”

Browning isn’t the only Buckeyes defender who’s noticeably better this year. All of them have spoken about wanting to live up to the Silver Bullets nickname.

“Everybody is excited to see one another make a play,” Browning said. “I feel like before, it just wasn't the same type of camaraderie that we have right now. If, for example, Jeff (Okudah) makes a play, I’m flying around hugging him as if I just made the play. There’s just a love for one another and we’re excited to see each other do well.”

Browning has taken that attitude toward sharing the job with Borland, who’s a two-year captain. That’s not the only position where multiple players have divided time.

“Everybody likes the rotation, so it’s not an issue,” he said.

It may have taken Browning a little longer to live up to his billing than he would have preferred, but he has learned to disregard the weight of expectations.

“I know people have expectations, but I think the best thing I’ve done is just block all that out and focus on getting better, and listening to coach Washington and just following his plan for me.”

The memory of last year remains with him, spurring him on.

“It’s more so taking advantage of every opportunity, because you never know when it’s going to come back around,” Browning said. “That’s all I’ve been focusing on.”

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

@brdispatch

Listen to the BuckeyeXtra Football podcast: