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Linebacker Pete Werner's position switch expected to help Ohio State football's run defense

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner (20), breaking up a pass intended for Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth last year, will be called on to be more of a run-stopper on the strong side this year.

Looking back at last season’s games, Greg Mattison noticed one particular approach opposing offenses took against Ohio State’s defense.

They often ran away from linebacker Pete Werner, who was lined up on the strong side of the line of scrimmage.

“They can get you on one side,” Mattison said, “and have everything going the other way.”

The Buckeyes sought to address the situation this season, which begins Saturday against Nebraska. In response to the trend, the coaching staff sought to put Werner more in the thick of things, moving him to weak-side linebacker.

“We felt Pete was too valuable and too good of a football player,” said Mattison, the defensive co-coordinator for the Buckeyes.

As a weak-side linebacker, Werner is to be aligned closer to the middle of the field alongside middle linebacker Tuf Borland.

“Tuf and him inside together, now they're both going to the football,” Mattison said. “Both of them run so well. Both of them are so intelligent. It's been a really good move for us.”

The spot on the weak side was vacated by Malik Harrison, who was a senior last fall and led the team with 75 tackles as an important run-stuffing presence.

Harrison was the only linebacker to depart after last season, leaving a surplus of returners that coach Ryan Day sees as “probably the strength of the defense.”  

“I'm really impressed with the way the linebackers as a whole unit have just done a great job of communicating, diagnosing plays, seeing things, running to the football,” Day said. “It's just a very professional group of guys in my opinion.”

Werner said earlier this month that his position switch caught him by surprise. He adapted well in his first season to a scheme implemented last season by Mattison and Jeff Hafley, who has since been replaced by Kerry Coombs.

“I was a little bit shocked knowing the way I played the previous year,” Werner said. “But then again, the coaches know what they're doing.”

In learning his new linebacker spot, Werner said, understanding the fine details was critical.

“The little things matter at this position,” he said. “One wrong footwork, one wrong step, it results in you being behind the play. If your eyes aren't in the right spot, then it's going to be a big play. Having guys as disciplined as we are in the box, I think that it's going to work out very well.

“But it was very tough switching positions. The only thing that helped me out a bunch is being an older guy, knowing every position on the defense. I'd like to say that I can play any position on the defense just because all of us know the defense so well.”

With Werner switching roles, fellow seniors Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard are expected to fill his spot on the strong side. 

As the strong-side linebacker last season, Werner was responsible for extended pass coverage.

Rather than swap him out for a fifth defensive back, the Buckeyes often relied on Werner to cover a receiver or tight end, as he functioned in some elements as a safety.

Mattison believed Browning or Hilliard could offer the same versatility, eliminating some of the urgency for substitutions on passing downs.

“They both have been super,” Mattison said. “They really understand it. They really bought in and are very intelligent. And I think they'll be able to do the same thing.”

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

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