The Ohio State linebackers left spring ball without any starters being named, other than the injured Tuf Borland, who won’t even be practicing until around September due to an Achilles tendon injury. Based on who was healthy and who is more experienced, we can still take a pretty educated guess at where things ended up. At least on the outside, that is. Middle linebacker is anybody’s guess at this point.
39 Malik Harrison, Jr (6-3 240)
33 Dante Booker, rSr (6-3 240) (Inj.)
19 Dallas Gant, Fr (6-3 215)
47 Justin Hilliard, rJr (6-1 230) OR
5 Baron Browning, So (6-4 238)
32 Tuf Borland, rSo 6-1 230) (Inj.)
16 Keandre Jones, Jr (6-2 228)
20 Pete Werner, So (6-3 235)
Linebackers coach Bill Davis said after spring ball that he couldn’t name his starters because the competition was so close at all three spots. This inability to name his top three linebackers was also a product of the versatile nature of his linebackers. Malik Harrison, Baron Browning, Keandre Jones, and Pete Werner all played multiple positions in the spring. The depth chart above is where things ended in terms of the positions that were being played. At Sam, freshman Dallas Gant wasn’t going to unseat Malik Harrison. At Will, Pete Werner only moved over during the spring, so he wasn’t going to overtake Keandre Jones, who is now in his third year as a Will. Before Davis knows who is starting where, he and the rest of the defensive staff will need to figure out their top three linebackers and then go from there.
“He was before he got hurt because Tuf runs the show. Everybody in there looks at Tuf and they know Tuf knows and Tuf gets you set and Tuf does his job every down. He earned that last year. Tuf left as the starter and when he gets healthy — again, it’s an Achilles, so the timetable is on his own body. When it comes back, we don’t know where that is. Is it game three, game one, training camp? We don’t know that and that’s going to dictate a lot of where he’ll be back.” — Bill Davis on Tuf Borland being the starter at MLB before his injury.
Dallas Gant was the only true freshman linebacker to participate in spring football for the Buckeyes this year. He spent his time at the Sam, which allows him to play the wide side of the field and use his athleticism. It’s too early for him to establish himself as a sure-fire contributor on defense this year, but he is smart and went full speed, so he checks plenty of boxes. He’ll have to make an impact on special teams first, which he seems perfectly suited for as a freshman.
Baron Browning was playing the Will this spring until Tuf Borland’s injury. Browning then moved to middle linebacker in order to compete with Justin Hilliard for the time being. It’s a familiar position for Browning, as it is the one he played last season as a true freshman. If he doesn’t win the job in fall camp — or even if he does — he could very well move back to Will once Borland returns. What does that mean for Keandre Jones and Pete Werner? Good question. Any of those three linebackers can play any of the three linebacker spots, so this will be a good problem to have. It is also one of the reasons why Bill Davis and Greg Schiano have both said that we could see more than three linebackers playing regularly this season.
The Buckeyes have to replace departed starters Chris Worley and Jerome Baker, and they went about doing it this spring with five or six guys who could start anywhere in the Big Ten. Ohio State has four former 5-star linebackers on the roster, and none of them may be starting come November. Most Big Ten teams can put out a pretty good first team, but the depth is what gets them. The Buckeyes’ only established linebacker went down with an Achilles injury this spring and the coaches reacted to it like it was a muscle cramp. How many Big Ten teams could lose their starting middle linebacker and shrug their shoulders about it?
Keandre Jones has sat patiently behind Jerome Baker for the last two seasons at Will and now he is hungry to finally get out there and live up to his lofty billing. Jones is athletic enough to play any of the linebacker spots, but putting on weight has been an issue. As the Will in this defense, the ball is going to find him a lot. He is a downhill tackler who can also chase plays wide, so he’ll find the ball just as much as it finds him. Jones is loaded with potential. He will have an opportunity to establish himself early in the season, just as he did this spring.