Despite Ohio State returning two-thirds of the linebacking corps from the 2016 season, this unit will look drastically different heading into the 2017 season.
While the names and jersey numbers will look familiar, there is a similar feeling to when your spouse gets a haircut or moves a piece of furniture, forcing you to pause for a moment until you can put your finger on what exactly has changed. Only Jerome Baker will be playing the same position from the previous season, and if you recall, he was backing up Chris Worley before a knee injury ended Dante Booker’s season during the opening game against Bowling Green.
Booker returns to the Ohio State starting lineup as a strong-side, or SAM Linebacker, keeping the aforementioned Baker as a weak-side, or WILL Linebacker. At 6’3” 240lbs, Booker possesses good overall athletic ability and provides a solid matchup versus opposing Tight Ends. His play in the Spring Game proved he is a very reliable run-stopper, filling gaps and shedding blocks to make a play.
What stood out on film was his inconsistency in coverage. As you will see in the following clip, he is late to process a bubble screen, which leads to a big play. As a SAM Linebacker, he will be facing a number of “Trips” formations to his side of the field. His success will be contingent on his ability to make plays in the open field in 2017.
Senior Chris Worley moves to Middle Linebacker, or MIKE Linebacker, and will provide experience and leadership despite playing exactly ZERO games at Middle Linebacker for Ohio State. Worley, who started all 13 games last season at SAM Linebacker, was a reliable defender who tallied 69 tackles and 4.5 TFL in 2016. He has the speed and agility to be productive, as he will be tasked with covering the Running Backs out of the backfield or Tight Ends on occasion.
The main question heading into the Spring was his ability to play “downhill” in run fits. Worley will be considered an “undersized” Middle Linebacker at 6’2” 230 lbs, so it remains to be seen if he can take the punishment required to consistently take on blocks to spill the play to his teammates. The key with Worley remains his intelligence on the field as he now becomes the vocal leader of the entire defense.
Justin Hilliard, a Redshirt Sophomore, proved to be ready for a breakout season in 2017 should his number be called after a superb Spring Game. Hilliard displays very good patience at Middle Linebacker and has the speed and strength to flow outside against the run. As you will see in the video breakdown below, Hilliard does a lot of things well, and it will be a difficult task to keep him off the field for Ohio State in 2017.
Other Notable LB:
Keandre Jones, 6’2” 225lbs – Showed really good awareness in the Spring Game and has the speed to cover sideline-to-sideline. He will make an impact on special teams in 2017 and have an opportunity for significant playing time in 2018.