Rob Oller: Tuf Borland better off being a football tortoise than track and field hare

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Speed is a deceptive and relative little rascal. Looking out the window of a commercial jet, land leisurely passes at 500 mph, slower it seems than a cheetah chasing down a gazelle in the Serengeti.

Or take Tuf Borland, the Ohio State linebacker who signed with Minnesota as a free agent after going undrafted last week. Borland’s 40-yard dash time of 4.98 is considered slow for an NFL linebacker, but 98 percent of the world can’t run that fast. (For comical proof, check out the video of a certain Dispatch columnist clocking a time of 7.8 in the 40 while “sprinting” down his neighborhood street.)

As much as speed is elusive — you’re either born with it or you’re not —  it also is contextual. Borland (4.9) appeared to be running in waist-high water while chasing Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith (4.4) during the College Football Playoff national championship game. But put a softball beer league first baseman on the same field and Borland catches him running backward. 

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Does that mean speed is overrated in football? Absolutely not. The main reason the Arizona Cardinals drafted 5-foot-7 Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore in the second round was because he runs the 40 in sub-4.3 seconds. Moore answers those who ask how big he is with “How big is fast?”

Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland ran a shuttle time of 4.29 seconds at Ohio State’s pro day on March 30, faster than fellow linebackers Pete Werner (4.38) and Justin Hilliard (4.34) and only slightly slower than Baron Browning (4.23), all of whom ran faster than Borland in the 40-yard dash.

Former Ohio State wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. played 14 seasons in the NFL, primarily because he went from point A to point B faster than all but a few defensive backs. His hands were not glue, but his legs turned over like Fred Flintstone’s. 

But Ginn was a football player who ran track, not the other way around. Big difference. Those of a certain generation will recall Renaldo Nehemiah, the Olympic hurdler who later took his world-class speed to the NFL, where he suddenly looked ordinary. Blazing through 110 meters in a straight line does not automatically translate into success outside the hash marks. 

Aesop famously wrote “Put football pads on a sprinting hare and he becomes a tortoise.” Or something like that. The point is that speed only supplements the strength, dedication and derangement required to play football. 

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Or else Chris Spielman might be selling hospital equipment instead of holding a top executive position with the Detroit Lions. 

Spielman ran 4.9 in the 40 at the 1988 NFL combine, which when adjusted for modern training advances would come out today to about … 4.89. Heh-heh. Spiels wasn’t exactly Usain Bolt, but the former Ohio State linebacker was just driven and crazy enough to think his work ethic and nose for the football would work out well for him. 

Twelve seasons and four Pro Bowls later, he was right. 

Chris Spielman was considered too slow coming out of Ohio State. He played in the NFL for 12 seasons and made four Pro Bowls.

Spielman’s older brother Rick, who serves as general manager of the Vikings — maybe he sees similarities between Borland and his younger sibling? — has told the story of how he tried to upstage Chris during a pro day workout in 1988. As Rick was preparing to better his brother in the broad jump, Chris came from the side and tackled him in midair. 

“He clotheslined me,” Rick Spielman told ESPN. “He said, ‘This is enough of this. Let’s play football.’”

I asked Chris Spielman on Tuesday if he considered his rather unimpressive 40 time to be a career detriment. Ever the positive thinker, he texted, “My short shuttle (drill) negated my 40. It was a good DB (defensive back) time.”

In other words, in some cases quickness trumps speed. And linebacker is one of those cases. At least when playing against the run, which was Borland’s strength with the Buckeyes.

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Consider how Borland’s shuttle time of 4.29 at Ohio State’s pro day on March 30 was faster than those of fellow linebackers Pete Werner (4.38) and Justin Hilliard (4.34) and only slightly slower than Baron Browning (4.23), all of whom ran faster than Borland in the 40. New Orleans drafted Werner in the second round, Denver took Browning in the third. Hilliard signed with San Francisco as a free agent.

I’m not saying Borland will be the best of that bunch, or even that he’ll make it in the NFL. But don’t write off the three-time Ohio State captain just because he is comparatively slow. 

It’s the NFL, not the Olympics. Let’s play football.

Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland chases down Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral on Nov. 9.