As Ohio State fans have learned over the last few years, success can bring almost as much coach and player turnover as failure does. The 2017 season brings more of the same for both in the linebackers room.
Luke Fickell took his talents south as he became the head coach at the University of Cincinnati, and Raekwon McMillan took his talents even further south as he entered the NFL draft after three seasons with the Buckeyes. Bill Davis takes over as the new leader of the linebackers and that may have more impact than losing one of the top linebackers in the country.
The Buckeyes return a lot of experience at one of the most talented groups on the team. Unfortunately, none of that experience came at the middle linebacker spot that McMillan played. Since I have absolutely zero minutes of playing MLB at a B1G school, let alone transitioning to it from weak or strong side linebacker, all I can do is guess as to how this transition will go.
Every single spot for a position has certain nuances that makes it different from one another. I’m sure there is a learning curve as you move from one to another. I can’t imagine that any linebacker on Ohio State’s roster, given solid coaching and video work, will have any issue sliding to the middle spot. But what do I know, I was concerned that Sam Hubbard wouldn’t be a good defensive end.
Coming out of spring practice, Chris Worley will make the move from SAM to MIKE for the Buckeyes. Over the winter the speculation was that Dante Booker would be the one to slide inside after playing the weak side linebacker spot in 2016. Most people were surprised at the start of spring practice when it was Worley in the middle with Booker on the strong side and Jerome Baker playing the WILL spot. Nobody should be surprised, though, that those three were filling the spots. The combination of ability and experience made those players the obvious choices.
I absolutely love the idea of Baker, Booker, and Worley being on the field at the same time. The incredible athleticism that they possess will make it really tough on opposing offenses to get to the edges. The defensive line will be taking up a lot of blockers this season and that leaves this group to wreak havoc in the middle of the field. The idea of any of them blitzing through gaps created by the DL makes me giddy. I have really high expectations for this unit and I don’t expect to be disappointed.
Based on how things went during the spring, the backups will be shored up by the starters’ sophomore clones. Malik Harrison at SAM, Justin Hilliard at MIKE, and Keandre Jones at WILL, are almost exact physical copies of the guys they back up. I know that size alone doesn’t make a great linebacker, but based on everything that I’ve heard about these three, I’m not too horribly worried about the two-deep for this unit.
There are 13 linebackers listed on Ohio State’s roster. Three of those 13 are walk-ons and probably won’t see much playing time. Take away the starters, backups, and the walk-ons and you have four scholarship guys that will need some playing time during the season. I’m sure they will get minutes on special teams and time against lesser opponents (Army, UNLV, Rutgers, Nebraska, etc…), but they are talented enough to be on the two-deep at other B1G schools.
Sometimes the desire for playing time pushes these players to really show out during fall camp. Don’t be surprised if a rotation develops at one or more linebacker spots. It also wouldn’t surprise me if freshman Baron Browning made some noise in the fall and earned some time.
PROJECTED DEPTH CHART
For those of you that don’t know, I live in Nebraska. I consume everything that I can find on the internet about Ohio State football. I’m not able to attend practices or talk to coaches or build relationships with program insiders. That said, I’m not going to go out on a limb here and project any surprises in the two-deep.
I think the unit building done by Luke Fickell over the last few years will carry on with this current group of upperclassmen. Bill Davis comes in with a pretty solid reputation as a linebackers coach. I believe that if a coach is good enough for Urban, he’s good enough for me. If he isn’t good enough, he’ll be replaced.