Ohio State football team loaded at linebacker with experience and young talent
Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard have been Buckeyes so long that they have their degrees. Pete Werner is also a senior and entering his third year as a starter.
Werner proved his versatility last year as a Sam linebacker (strong side) who occasionally would line up as the sole safety in pass coverage. This year, Werner is moving to the Will spot while Browning moves to Sam, which is Hilliard’s primary position. Borland remains the middle linebacker.
Behind them are players such Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope — talented juniors who have had to show patience but are pushing for significant playing time.
"Great leadership and great maturity," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said of the linebackers unit. "One thing I like about them is that you can run a play on them and maybe you'll get them once, but you're not going to get them twice. That's the sign of great linebackers. They just identify things, they process information, and they communicate really well."
For linebackers coach Al Washington, the depth is both a blessing and a challenge. The plan is to deploy players situationally to get the best matchups.
“You just give the player a role, a focus, and give him the opportunity to exercise that,” Washington said. “We are a deep group, but this year in particular we are going to need more than three or four. We have to develop throughout the year because you never know what can happen in this whole (pandemic) situation we’re in.
“Everybody has a role. Everybody’s engaged. I feel this time period has really brought us closer in the sense that everybody feels they matter.”
Werner acknowledged that he was surprised when coaches approached him about shifting from the strong side to the weak side after he made major strides last year at the Sam position.
“They saw what I did in the box a few plays, and they really liked it,” Werner said. “They saw that in the Clemson game. I think switching me and Baron, showing different versatility options, I think they really liked that.
“But I was a little bit shocked, knowing the way I played the previous year. Then again, the coaches know what they’re doing. I think we’re doing well so far.”
Browning is looking forward to his position change. He played outside linebacker in high school while becoming a five-star prospect before shifting mostly to middle linebacker as a Buckeye.
“It was different coming in a position where there’s more responsibilities — lining guys up — just something I wasn’t used to,” Browning said. “I just had to adapt. But I think (Sam) is my natural position. I feel very comfortable there.”
He’ll still move around, with Hilliard also getting time at the strong-side spot. Hilliard was also a five-star player whose career was at risk of being derailed by numerous major injuries. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility as a result.
“I think both (of us) are explosive players and have great instincts,” Browning said. “It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing yourself.”
As only the second three-time captain in Ohio State history, Borland might seem like a known quantity, but he has pushed himself this offseason.
“I started to change my body a little bit,” Borland said. “I leaned up, improved my speed and explosiveness, and focused on block destruction, something you really need in the middle. I also know I need to play in space and cover well and tackle in space. So those are the things I tried to attack this offseason.”
It was a unique offseason because players were sent away from campus because of the pandemic. But Washington said his unit grew even closer through the Zoom calls and other ways they had to be innovative to make sure they kept developing.
“I think this group of guys is one of the more special ones I’ve been around from the standpoint of leadership,” he said. “This is one of the most adverse times a college athlete could ever have. Despite all that, they’ve, in my opinion, found a way to make themselves better and found a way to get closer.
“The character in the room is through the roof. I hold this group in high regard. I think they’re extremely talented. I think they have a determination. Our mentality this whole offseason is focused on being the difference and making the difference. We’ve had a chip on the shoulder since the beginning of the year, and we still carry that.”