Where could Ohio State football find answers in the linebackers room in 2021?

Joey Kaufman
The Columbus Dispatch

Editor’s note: This is the eighth in a series of stories looking at the 10 most pressing questions facing Ohio State football as it prepares for the 2021 season.

Today, Part 8: Where will Ohio State find answers in the linebacker room?

This is the first time in more than a decade that Ohio State is without a linebacker who holds previous starting experience with the program.

The last situation in 2006 came following the departures of Bobby Carpenter, A.J. Hawk and Anthony Schlegel. The Buckeyes did then have John Kerr on the roster after he had started as a freshman at Indiana before transferring, but that was it.

This offseason, they’re dealing with the losses of veteran starters Baron Browning, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner, as well as Justin Hilliard, who had been an important rotation player in the past two seasons.

So who steps up?

Dallas Gant (19) is expected to start at middle linebacker for Ohio State this season, replacing Tuf Borland.

Eyes on Dallas Gant, Teradaja Mitchell during OSU camp

It’s one of the biggest uncertainties for Ohio State as it begins preseason camp.

The most obvious candidates are seniors Dallas Gant and Teradja Mitchell, who had the highest snap counts among the Buckeyes’ returning linebackers.

Both have been backups for several seasons.

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Gant is expected to take over at middle linebacker for Borland. He was out for spring practice because of a foot injury, but has recovered and is expected to be fully healthy in camp, which opens Wednesday. When he spoke with reporters in spring practice, Mitchell said he expected to find his role at weakside linebacker.

If the Buckeyes lean on the 4-2-5 base defense they used in the spring game, only two linebackers might need to take the field.

Teradja Mitchell (3), here leaving the field with cornerback Cameron Brown following the spring game on April 17, could start at weakside linebacker this season.

But fellow senior K'Vaughan Pope could also step in as the strongside linebacker if they continue to predominantly use a 4-3 formation.

Neither Gant, Mitchell, nor Pope has started a game for the Buckeyes since arriving in 2018, but coach Ryan Day sees them as familiar with the system, giving some confidence that they might be able to step in for a smooth transition this fall.

“Dallas, Teradja and K'Vaughan have been in the program for a while now,” Day said, “so they're right in line. They just need to take the next step."

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He mentioned underclassmen such as sophomores Tommy Eichenberg and Cody Simon, as well as freshman Reid Carrico, as having the potential to make an impact.  

Day likened it to last season's uncertainty at defensive tackle. Ohio State did not have a returning starter, but saw Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai emerge as All-Big Ten standouts.

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Senior K'Vaughan Pope could play strongside linebacker if Ohio State continues to predominantly use a 4-3 formation.

The wild card in the linebacker room is Palaie Gaoteote, a transfer from USC who will offer a veteran presence if he can see the field.

Day said at Big Ten media days that they were waiting on a ruling from the NCAA on his eligibility.

Gaoteote is enrolled at the university, where he’s taking classes and “paying his own way,” according to Day.

If Palaie Gaoteote gains eligibility, he would be the only Ohio State linebacker with starting experience, having started 12 games in two seasons at USC.

But he has not been added to the team’s official roster.

Day said the issue was not whether Gaoteote would be cleared to play immediately, but called it as “more of an eligibility situation.” He didn’t provide further details. He was expecting the issue to be sorted out soon.

If Gaoteote can join the Buckeyes this fall, he would be their only linebacker with starting experience. Over his first two seasons at USC, he started 12 games.

Last season, Gaoteote started the first two games before suffering a concussion and missing the Trojans’ remaining four games.

He is also a physical linebacker, listed at 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds last season, while Gant and Mitchell are at 235 pounds. Pope is 225 pounds.

The Buckeyes have been in search of an extra impact player this offseason.  

Before Gaoteote enrolled in school, they had been pursuing Tennessee transfer Henry To'oto'o before he went to Alabama.

Now they’ll rely on their former backups to find their way and hope Gaoteote can be cleared to join them.

Next: Who will step up at cornerback?

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman

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