'The unit is looking very, very strong': Buckeyes' starting linebackers will be new, but embrace the high standard

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell (3) celebrates a fumble recovery by teammate Baron Browning (5) in OSU's national championship loss to Alabama.

Al Washington could have left the Ohio State football team in February for a promotion and hefty pay increase.

But Washington turned down the opportunity to become defensive coordinator at Tennessee to remain the Buckeyes' linebackers coach.

Part of the reason was his love of Ohio State and that Columbus is his hometown. Washington appreciates that his parents — his father, Al Washington Sr., was an OSU linebacker — live nearby and are a major presence in his two young children’s lives.

Another factor, though, was his eagerness to develop a new group of starting linebackers at Ohio State. Tuf Borland, Pete Werner, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard were Buckeyes seemingly since the Jim Tressel era. Now they’re off to pursue their NFL dreams.

Ohio State has had only three spring practices, and only one in pads. It’s premature for Washington to divulge a pecking order even if he were inclined, which he isn’t. But he likes the possibilities.

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“The unit is looking very, very strong,” Washington said on Thursday. “Their attitude's been great.

“The best thing we have is competition. When that happens, I think you get everybody's best. We still have to improve every day. We're three practices in, but you can see the growth every day. And our goal is at the end of the 15 practices is to be better in every way leading into the fall.”

Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope are seniors with extensive experience as backups. It’s logical to think they’ll get the first crack at earning jobs, though Gant has a foot injury that will keep him out of spring practice.

But nobody has a job secured. Sophomores Craig Young, Cody Simon and Tommy Eichenberg also are battling, along with redshirt freshman Mitchell Melton and early enrollee freshman Reid Carrico.

Mitchell and Gant said they were thrilled Washington stayed.

Ohio State's returning linebackers are thrilled that assistant coach Al Washington, here celebrating a fumble recovery by the defense in a November game against Indiana, will be back in 2021 to lead the group.

“Me personally, I think he's the best linebackers coach in the country, without a doubt,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, those (job) opportunities are going to arise at the end of the season so I'm glad he's sticking around. I'm glad to work with him. He's definitely elevated our unit.”

Now it's time for the next wave to take over.

“We’ve been waiting for our time for a while,” Gant said. “It's frustrating at times, but you know you're playing behind great players, Buckeye greats that will be remembered forever and that really set the tone for us.

“Now we know how to act, how to do things. The mindset is that it's our time now to prove ourselves as that linebacker corps and there won't be a drop-off between those older grads that have played for three or four years.”

Gant expects to play middle linebacker when he’s healthy. Mitchell, who is at the weakside spot, has dropped 20 pounds to 235 after adopting a vegan diet last fall, following the lead of former quarterback Justin Fields.

“It makes me feel a lot better,” said Mitchell, who recently added fish back into his diet. “When I wake up in the morning, I just feel good. Even on the field now, I just feel so much better. I feel faster. I feel quicker. I have a lot more energy than I had.”

Mitchell considers himself a stern self-critic and wasn't satisfied with his play as a backup last year. He volunteered that he struggles with performance anxiety, for which he has received help from Ohio State.

A way to combat that is to prepare as well as possible, and Mitchell said he is doing everything he can to do so. He said he is watching video more diligently in the past so that his knowledge can offset some of his lack of game experience.

Washington and the linebackers embrace the idea that they won’t be graded on a curve. Ohio State has a standard for linebacker play, which Washington knows extends even earlier than his father’s time as a Buckeye more than 40 years ago.

“We talk about that all the time,” Washington said. “We’re aware of that. So you may feel some nicks and bruises. You feel tired. Hey, the standard is the standard. That’s non-negotiable. When we do our day-to-day business, that’s in the back of our mind.”

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