Will and Mike Linebackers Eventually Interchangeable for Buckeyes

Teradja Mitchell Ohio State Buckeyes Linebacker

Ohio State’s new defense isn’t all that new, even to Buckeye fans.

Part of the newness stems from the new Bullet position brought in by co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison and linebackers coach Al Washington, but a decade ago at Ohio State the position was called the Star and it was talked about almost daily.

The Bullet isn’t the only change with the linebackers, as now both the Will and Mike are considered inside linebackers, while the Bullet and the Sam will be outside ‘backers. The Sam and the Bullet generally won’t be on the field at the same time, but they will line up in similar spots.

Having two inside linebackers is also something we’ve seen from the Buckeyes in years past. If you go back and watch games from 2013, you’ll see Will linebacker Ryan Shazier lined up over the center as much as Mike linebacker Curtis Grant.

You can go even further back than that with guys like Andrew Sweat or AJ Hawk. They were Wills, and they were inside linebackers.

Those roles were a bit different than the last few years where the Sam and Will were essentially mirror images of each other. They had the same responsibilities, but the Sam took the wide side of the field and the Will was on the short side.

That would put both outside linebackers in some man coverage situations at times, asking them to spread out to the numbers in an effort to defend their man.

There are positives and negatives to every defensive scheme, which is why it generally comes down to personnel and philosophy.

Mattison likes having two inside guys because in an ideal world they are interchangeable.

For instance, on last year’s defense, it would have been difficult to ask Tuf Borland to move from Mike to Will because of how much extra ground the Will may have to cover. In this year’s defense, however, what is being asked of the Will isn’t much different than what is asked of the Will.

“There’s a Mike linebacker and there is a Will linebacker,” Mattison said. “But anywhere you’re at, if you have the people that I know we have here, and Al does a great job with it, the Mike’s got to play Will, the Will’s got to play Mike. You’re going to always put your best players on the field.

“So as the spring’s over with and we rank them, it might be that this Mike is No. 1, this guy’s No. 2, this Will is No. 3. Well if something happens, that Will goes over to Mike. And I’ve always been a believer, if you know the position next to you, you play yours better because you understand everything that’s going on.”

In other words, if the starting Mike goes down and the backup Will is the third-best inside guy on the team rather than the backup Mike, then he should be able to step right into the Mike spot and not miss a beat. Or the starting Will should be able to slide right over and the backup Will now moves into a starter’s role.

It also means that the top two inside linebackers will be starting, whether they are both currently Mikes or Wills.

The philosophy is one thing, but the personnel is the other. In order to make these positions free-flowing, the proper skill sets have to be there.

Fortunately for the Buckeyes, Al Washington likes what he has to work with and believes this group of linebackers has the capability of being interchangeable.

“You would like it to be that way, but that Mike has got to be a dude,” he said. “And if you get like a two-by-two formation or you vacate the back out of there, there’s times that Will has got to have more cover skills than the Mike. I’ve been around so many different deals, but yeah, that’s a good question. I think they can be interchangeable.

“Fortunately for us, Malik [Harrison] is older, he knows ball, he could play Mike if we needed him to. Tuf [Borland] and Baron [Browning], those guys are smart. We’ve got guys that can play both.”