When Urban Meyer said this week that starting middle linebacker Tuf Borland had suffered an Achilles tendon injury, it put one of the most important positions on the Ohio State football team in doubt.
Fortunately for the Buckeyes — and Borland — the injury isn’t supposed to jeopardize the regular season for the redshirt sophomore who finished fourth on the team with 58 tackles last year.
Borland was the only established starter of the Buckeyes’ three linebackers this spring. While his temporary absence is not ideal, it does allow for more reps to be spread about in practice.
The Ohio State roster is plastered with talented linebackers, many of whom have been stuck behind multi-year starters. With Borland out of the way for a bit, fourth-year junior Justin Hilliard and sophomore Baron Browning are splitting time in the middle.
Both came to OSU as 5-star prospects. Injuries have held Hilliard back, while only time and opportunity seem to be standing in Browning’s way.
After helping out on special teams a year ago, Meyer sees a potentially larger role finally for Hilliard.
“Sure. Yeah, he’s one of our best special teams players. Was a year ago,” Meyer said. “Very accountable guy, having a good spring so far. I’m a Justin Hilliard fan. I hope he continues to grow as a defensive player.”
When healthy, Hilliard has played well in practice over the years, and his effort has never been a question. Meyer is seeing Hilliard grow into a productive player the more practice time he gets under his feet.
“He’s had some tough, tough injuries,” Meyer said. “The biceps tears on two of them. But I can’t ask for anything more from him. He’s one of my favorite guys because he just goes as hard as he can. Like I told you, I’m a fan. I push that a little bit. He’s a guy that’s made some mistakes on defense when he’s in there, and he’s just fighting through. The light is coming on, and he’s doing pretty good.”
The light is also coming on for Baron Browning.
At 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, Browning looks and runs like a create-a-player. Playing mostly on special teams last season, Browning finished with 14 tackles — as did Hilliard.
If Tuf Borland is the Buckeyes’ starting middle linebacker in 2018, then that means both Browning and Hilliard are also auditioning for a starting role elsewhere. The Ohio State defense will feature the team’s three best linebackers. The coaches will just need to figure out where those three fit best.
Last season, those fits weren’t as snug as they needed to be, but they got better when Borland came in.
According to Meyer, Browning could end up fitting wherever the Buckeyes need him this year.
“He’s as talented a linebacker as has ever walked through these doors,” he said. “He’s a big freak that can do it all. Great young man. Did not play well early in the season. Just was out of his comfort zone. By the end of the season he was really contributing in a lot of areas on special teams and should have played some defense, but he just didn’t earn that yet.
“But he’s got it all now. He’s got A to Z. An intelligent guy, a good person, and God has blessed him with an incredible skill set.”