Ohio State went into the spring having to replace just one linebacker from last season, but that one was a big one. Middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan is on his way to the NFL and now Chris Worley has stepped in for him. That was just one story of the spring, which featured new positions, injuries, and a good amount of depth.
17 Jerome Baker, Jr (6-1 225)
16 Keandre Jones, Soph (6-2 225) OR
32 Tuf Borland, rFr (6-1 229)
35 Chris Worley, rSr (6-2 230)
47 Justin Hilliard, rSo (6-1 230)
5 Baron Browning, Fr (6-4 230)
43 Nick Conner, rSo (6-3 234)
33 Dante Booker, rJr (6-3 240)
39 Malik Harrison, Soph (6-3 235)
Despite bothering his coaches for years about playing inside, Chris Worley spent his first four years at Ohio State playing away from the scrum. Now as the man in the middle, he will become the scrum. (The Buckeyes should adopt “Become the Scrum” as their motto in 2017.) Urban Meyer has openly wondered how well Worley will hold up in this role, but linebackers coach Billy Davis isn’t too concerned, citing all of the spread offenses that the Buckeyes will play in 2017.
“I feel like I’m one of the most dynamic players in the country honestly. I played safety and did pretty good at safety, had a couple of hard hits during camp, then they asked me to move to Sam. I moved to Sam and battled with a first-rounder (Darron Lee) to the end of the first game honestly. That speaks a lot about Darron, but it also speaks a lot about myself. That was a battle that I’ll never forget because it made us both better. That’s two positions right there, and I can also play Mike or Will and play it as well as the best of them. So it speaks to how Coach Meyer and Coach Fickell and now Coach Davis and Coach Schiano, how they sort of raised the linebacker group to be able to feed off of each other, but I also put the work in, so I’m ready for it.” — Chris Worley
Doteable (Which youngster should be doted on?)
There are a good number of linebackers on the roster right now in their first or second year who could be doted on, but the guy here is freshman middle linebacker Baron Browning. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Browning is built for any of the three linebacker spots, and with his athleticism, he could project to any of them as well. Browning came to Ohio State as a 5-star signee, but a shoulder injury cost him most of his spring camp. Despite the speed bump, expectations for Browning have not dimmed, and you can expect to see him playing in some capacity this season. He has a very bright future and even with his injury, he was able to curb some of his rawness this spring.
Toteable (Which linebacker could handle the football best.)
This one’s easy, it’s Jerome Baker. I even asked Baker this spring if he was a better high school running back than Mike Weber and he didn’t hesitate to say that he was. Sure, he may have only said that because Weber was standing right next to him, but go back and watch Baker in high school and you’ll see some definite ball skills. Or heck, just go back and watch the Oklahoma game again. Or the Michigan game…you know, in case you need to see if for a 17th time.
Dante Booker is the wildcard here, but I expect both Jerome Baker and Chris Worley to end up earning some All-B1G accolades. The guy playing outside in this defense — like Booker will be doing — isn’t as involved in as many plays, so he may not necessarily have the stats to catch people’s attention.
“To Ohio State as a safety Chris Worley came. As the team’s starting middle linebacker he will leave. The Buckeyes to a title in his final season in the Scarlet and Gray can he lead? Missed how much will Raekwon McMillan be? Or Luke Fickell? All serious questions these are. Yerssss.”
Billy Davis can gloat because he’s got two former 5-star prospects at middle linebacker and they’re both on his bench. Redshirt sophomore Justin Hilliard and freshman Baron Browning both played behind Chris Worley this spring. Oh, and they’re not the only 5-star guys on the bench, because Keandre Jones is there as well. Don’t get it wrong, these guys are going to play on special teams, and they will see some time at linebacker, but these are the guys who aren’t yet starting. How many assistant coaches in the country can say they have three 5-star guys on the bench? I mean, other than Larry Johnson, of course.
Hauteable (What’s fashionable?)
The fashionable aspect of these Ohio State linebackers is that they are all pretty much interchangeable. The Will and the Sam are the same position, it’s just that the Sam plays the wide side of the field. Chris Worley plays the middle now, but played the Sam last year. If needed, he could step right into any of the three spots. Jerome Baker was a Sam until the Oklahoma game last year, so he can play either of the two “outside” spots. Until this spring, Dante Booker was a Will, but now he’s a Sam. This is a versatile and athletic group of starters, and the backups are no different.
Until we see Dante Booker produce as a starter, we just won’t truly know what he is capable of. He was starting ahead of Jerome Baker a year ago before he got hurt, so obviously his coaches have seen more than enough. The other reason I’ve put him here is because Urban Meyer said towards the end of spring that sophomore Malik Harrison is going to compete with Booker for that starting Sam job once fall camp rolls around. The staff absolutely loves Harrison. He was an athlete when he got to Ohio State, but now he’s a big linebacker (6-3 235) who can run like a safety.
Any time you’ve got a new position coach, he’s fixing to either be blamed for something or credited for something. If there is a dip in production here — especially with two returning starters — there will be plenty of blame pointed at Billy Davis, and there will also be some blame aimed at Urban Meyer for hiring Davis, who is one of his best friends. The blame towards Meyer won’t last long, however, because he’s Urban Meyer.
Billy Davis was the best man at Urban and Shelley Meyer’s wedding. Did he give a speech? “I think I did, but it wasn’t a long one though.” Props to him because short wedding speeches are the best kind. By the way, you know the only way to guarantee a wedding won’t happen on a college football Saturday? Make sure the groom is a coach.
When the spring started, sophomore Keandre Jones was repping at the Will with redshirt freshman Tuf Borland. They were both behind Jerome Baker. When Malik Harrison went out with a shoulder injury, Jones was moved over to the Sam, freeing up reps for both him and Borland. Jones told me back in the winter that he can play all three linebacker spots, so it was not a surprise to see him float between the Will and Sam. I could see him at either spot down the road because he’s basically a little taller version of Jerome Baker. I don’t think he’s quite the running back that Baker is, however.
I really believe you could list almost any of the linebackers on the depth chart here and project an eventual explosion. And people shouldn’t be overlooking Tuf Borland in that grouping either. If you’re asking me to give you one guy — and I shouldn’t put this on you since I’m the one writing the categories as well — I would go with Jerome Baker. I fully expect this to be his final season at Ohio State. He still has some things in his game to clean up, but he did some of that this spring. He is a lot more comfortable with his place on this defense than he was a year ago, but his mentality hasn’t changed. He still fights for his job every day, and that’s the kind of attitude that gets rewarded.
The injury issues this spring were bad for the Buckeye linebackers as Nick Conner, Malik Harrison, and Baron Browning all missed significant time. Justin Hilliard, meanwhile, has yet to stay healthy for an entire season. He looked great this spring, but they still had a pitch count on him. Dante Booker is coming off of a season-ending injury last year, and Jerome Baker had issues himself over the second half of the year. This is a group with a history of nicks and dings, so it will be something to watch this season.