This season, the Ohio State Buckeyes will feature a Mike linebacker who used to be a Sam linebacker, a Sam linebacker who used to be a Will linebacker, and a Will linebacker who used to be a Sam linebacker.
No, this isn’t three cases of mistaken identity, it’s the Ohio State linebackers in a nutshell.
The first start of Chris Worley’s career came at the Will in 2014. He spent the next three seasons as a Sam. This year he is the Buckeyes’ starting Mike.
Last year, Dante Booker started the season opener for the Buckeyes at the Will. He missed the rest of the year due to injury, but now he is the team’s No. 1 Sam linebacker.
Jerome Baker was a Sam up until the Bowling Green game last year. He then moved to Will and played the position seamlessly.
To recap, that was Chris to Will to Sam to Mike, Dante to Will to Sam, and Jerome to Sam to Will.
It might sound like a lot, but there is one key thing to remember in all of this — the top three linebackers are going to play, and the rest will figure itself out.
“Coach (Billy) Davis said he’s going to get the three best out there,” Baker said back in the spring. “We’ve all got to learn all three linebacker positions. You can put me at Sam and I can play it. You can put Book at Will and he can play it. You can put me at Mike and I can play it. You can put Book at Mike and he can play it, so you’ve got to learn all three positions.”
The versatility of the players also plays in to what they are asked to do in this defense. For the Buckeyes, the Will and the Sam have the exact same responsibilities, they just play them on different portions of the field. The Will plays to the “boundary” — or short side of the field, while the Sam plays the wide side — or the “field”. Understandably, the Sam will find himself covering more slot receivers, but the responsibilities don’t change from side to side.
“The Sam and Will are interchangeable,” Davis said. “There is just a different world you live in when you are to the field or when you are in the boundary or when you are weak or strong. Having reps at those different things. The Mike is a different animal, but we have got a very teachable system. I could take, say, Jerome Baker from the Will ‘backer spot and make him a Mike and it wouldn’t be too big of a stretch.”
The ability to move a player from one spot to another and not miss a beat makes the Buckeyes appear even deeper than they already are. This is a nice situation to be in, but it’s not about making the unit deeper, it’s about making it better.
“Here is where it makes you better: I don’t have to take the next Sam and put him in,” Davis explained. “I can take the next best ‘backer and put him in. I may have to move two spots, but at the end of the day, the best three linebackers will be on the field at the same time. It doesn’t make you deeper, but it makes you better.”