Ohio State junior linebacker Jerome Baker announced on Monday that he was forgoing his senior season and entering the 2018 NFL Draft. It was not a surprise and nobody was caught off guard, but it does leave one gigantic unanswered question for the Buckeyes: Now what?
Urban Meyer and Luke Fickell recruited the position well and have put Ohio State in a position to move forward successfully, but that doesn’t mean we have any accurate idea of exactly how it’s going to be done.
Making matters more complicated is the departure of senior Chris Worley and the addition of Alex Grinch to the defensive staff. There are so many moving parts here that any kind of speculation on how things will play out would simply be a guess.
But we’ve never shied away from guesses here before.
Replacing Jerome Baker won’t necessarily be the focus — the focus will be finding the three best linebackers and putting them in the right spots to make the defense operate optimally. That process did not go well for most of the season in 2017, as Chris Worley eventually had to move outside and Tuf Borland took over in the middle.
So even when the Buckeyes do find a replacement for Baker at the Will linebacker spot, that doesn’t mean they’re going to put the right guy there. The good news is that this is a very versatile group and there are negligible differences between the Sam and the Will. There may be some growing pains for whichever new starter gets the job, and other candidates may emerge with more playing time.
Like I said, this could get complicated.
There is no shortage of options for the Buckeyes, which is want you want as a position coach. There are between 6-9 possibilities to take over for Baker, which we will cover below, in no particular order of likelihood. (No freshmen were mentioned because there are enough veterans to get the job done in 2018.)
33 Dante Booker, rSr
Booker began the 2016 season as the starter at Will before getting injured. He was Joshua Perry’s backup at the position the two years prior to that. He spent 2017 at Sam, splitting time with Malik Harrison. He was apparently injured for the last handful of games this past season.
47 Justin Hilliard, rJr
Hilliard has shown up on special teams and always looks good in the practices the media is allowed to watch. He has been patient waiting for his opportunity, and now with two jobs open, this may be it.
16 Keandre Jones, Jr
Many Buckeyes fans don’t even know about Jones yet, but he has been Jerome Baker’s backup the last two seasons. He’s a bigger version of Baker in many respects, and is capable of playing any of the three linebacker positions.
5 Baron Browning, Soph
Like the other three linebackers listed above, Browning is a former 5-star recruit. He was a backup at middle linebacker this past season, but the staff wants to get him on the field in 2018. He could end up anywhere, now he just has to show he deserves to play somewhere.
32 Tuf Borland, rSoph
I am of the opinion that Borland is only a middle linebacker in the current version of this defense, but what happens if Baron Browning ends up being a better option in the middle?
39 Malik Harrison, Jr
Harrison had a pretty good season as the nickel linebacker and appears set to make a very strong push at the Sam linebacker job. Given the similarities, however, he could also end up being the guy at the Will.
20 Pete Werner, Soph
Werner was behind Malik Harrison at the Sam, but Urban Meyer loves him. He had some nice moments on special teams, but will probably need more before he can make a push as a starter.
25 Brendon White, Soph
White could be a safety in the spring, or a wide receiver, or a linebacker. It is difficult to imagine him beating the rest of the names above out for a starting spot, but it does give you an idea of the sheer number of possibilities.
43 Nick Conner, rJr
Conner’s status is uncertain due to multiple knee injuries. He is being mentioned here out of respect for what he did in the spring of 2015 and because I didn’t want people asking me why he wasn’t included.