For the second year in a row, the Buckeyes are going to be replacing their leading tackler. Following the 2016 season, they had to replace middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan, and now following the 2017 season, they will have to replace outside linebacker Jerome Baker.
Baker finished with 72 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, two fumble recovers, and one forced fumble this past season. Baker, along with the rest of the Ohio State linebackers, had a slow start to 2017. Eventually, things got righted fairly well, and Baker responded with 16 tackles against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
The player who replaces Baker will need to be athletic and have the ability to both cover receivers in the slot and fill the holes against the run. He will need to be a playmaker and cannot be treated like a yo-yo by the opposing quarterback. There may be some growing pains here, but there are plenty of suitable options for a replacement.
There could be the better part of 10 names worth mentioning here, but for brevity’s sake, we’ll cut that number down to the most-likely candidates — of which there are still plenty. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is rising sophomore Baron Browning. Browning spent his true freshman season at middle linebacker, but was put there knowing that once he learned that spot, the other two linebacker positions would be easier to pick up. Browning certainly has the athleticism to replace Baker.
Baker’s backup this season was Keandre Jones, who will be a true junior in 2018. He has played sparingly on defense his first two seasons, but he is essentially a taller version (6-2 225) of Baker. Jones might get the first crack at Baker’s Will spot, but he is going to have to hold off a host of contenders.
Another player who has patiently waited his turn is Justin Hilliard, who will be a redshirt junior in 2018. Hilliard has battled injuries early in his career and was the No. 3 guy on the Will depth chart last season. He could also be a candidate in the middle.
While his first four seasons have not gone as expected at Ohio State, Dante Booker is also a name to watch here. He played Will linebacker his first three years at OSU, but spent last season at Sam. Injuries have held him back, and perhaps allowed others to pass him by.
Other possibilities would be rising sophomore Pete Werner, who spent last season at Sam. He is a rangy athlete with a magnetism for the football. Tuf Borland may be a possibility if there is better option in the middle, but that would surprise me. Malik Harrison could be a candidate, but he is currently the guy to beat at Sam. Then you also have rising sophomore Brendon White, who has been a linebacker, a receiver, and a safety already at OSU. He is currently listed as a safety, though.
The puzzle piece here is probably Baron Browning. He may start the spring at middle linebacker, and if he can’t make a move on Tuf Borland, maybe he gets a look at Will. Or maybe he just starts out at the Will and is put into an immediate competition with Keandre Jones and perhaps Justin Hilliard. There are a bunch of unknowns, and the only known right now is that Jones is going to be involved here. Browning and Borland may compete in the middle all spring long. Or not. Jones and Hilliard, meanwhile, could be in for a tremendous competition just between the two of them.
The best bet here is that Keandre Jones and Justin Hilliard are competing for the spot at the outset of spring camp. They have both had solid moments in various camp settings, but neither has been involved much in the No. 1 defense. This is going to be a sink or swim situation for both, and whoever swims the best in the spring is going to have a nice lead heading into fall camp. But then when fall camp begins, the position battle will once again commence.
I don’t know if there is a favorite for this spot, and even if there is a favorite, there’s no way he has a “majority” of the votes. There are simply too many talented players who have only gotten hungrier as they have seen veterans like Chris Worley and Jerome Baker play in front of them for years. As for a prediction, I believe that whoever replaces Baker won’t be settled until fall camp. But whoever does replace him will do a very nice job of it.