Chris Worley was a starter the past two seasons for the Buckeyes. In 2016, he was at the Sam and was one of OSU’s most consistent defenders. In 2017, he moved to middle linebacker and it took him a while to adjust. Before he could get completely comfortable, he injured his foot, which then cost him a couple of games.
Worley eventually got back into the lineup, but redshirt freshman Tuf Borland had asserted himself as the team’s new middle linebacker. Worley then replaced Dante Booker at Sam, which is the position we will look at when considering how the Buckeyes are going to go about replacing him.
A better outside linebacker than middle linebacker, the experience that Worley brought to both positions will be missed. He finished fifth with 56 tackles despite missing three games and being hurt during a few others. Replacing him at Sam won’t be easy, but the Buckeyes have a number of talented options.
When thinking of Chris Worley’s replacement at Sam, the first option to look at is the guy who played the position more than anybody else last season — Malik Harrison. Harrison played in every game last season and started against Michigan State. He split time with both Dante Booker and Worley, usually coming in on passing downs because of his versatility. Harrison finished with 36 tackles in 2017, including a season-high six against both MSU and USC.
Last season’s original starting Sam is also a consideration here as well. Dante Booker started six games last season, but dealt with injuries over the second half of the year. As a fifth-year senior he has seen it all, but he has yet to become the player that many expected him to develop into. Can he do it in his final season as a Buckeye?
As a true freshman last season, Pete Werner worked his way into the depth chart at Sam behind Booker and Harrison. He played sparingly on defense because of numbers, but he was good enough in practice that the staff didn’t want him redshirting. Werner will begin the season in the depth chart somewhere and is going to be given every chance to stay there. He is athletic and rangy and is only going to get better. He might still be a year away, but don’t be surprised if he has some moments in 2018.
One of the more intriguing situations in the spring will be where sophomore Baron Browning plays. He was a middle linebacker last season, so you can expect him to be there competing with Tuf Borland at the outset. Will he stay there though? There are also a pair of freshmen who could get involved here in K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant. Both have the makings of outside linebackers, but there are so many names on this roster that it will be difficult for a rookie to find a prominent spot.
Because of the interchangeability of the Sam and the Will, we could also see Keandre Jones here, but I expect him to be in a fierce competition with Justin Hilliard at the Will.
Once spring camp opens, provided there hasn’t been a linebacker like Dante Booker moved down to defensive end, you can expect Malik Harrison, Booker, and Pete Werner to continue the battle they were waging last season. This might be Booker’s last chance to prove he can go out like an Etienne Sabino or Curtis Grant, who were both former 5-star linebackers who didn’t really put it all together until they were seniors. This will also be an opportunity for Harris and Werner to show the coaches that it’s finally time to focus on them, as opposed to trying to finally get it to click for Booker.
The best bet is Malik Harrison, who I believe is due to take over completely. No more half measures with his playing time, let’s see what Harrison can do in a full-time capacity. He is a very good athlete, and at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, a pretty big one as well. He can hold up against the run, and the staff already believes in him as a pass defender. Now we just have to see it for 60 plays a game, from first down to third down. If he ends up being pretty good, then 2018 might be his last season, and then Pete Werner can step in for him in 2019.
I really think Dante Booker’s best shot at some playing time would be moving down to defensive end. He spent his first two seasons playing behind Joshua Perry, and after sitting out 2016 with an injury, he wasn’t able to stay healthy in 2017. Maybe what he needs is a position where he can rotate in and out of a game and be fairly contained in what he is asked to do. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Booker’s size and 4.5 speed could be an interesting combination for a 300-pound offensive tackle to have to deal with. He could be a nice change-of-pace guy on passing downs. Perhaps he comes in as a the fifth man in the Rushmen package? I expect them to find something different for Booker than simply being a standard linebacker. They will try to find a role for him where he can be his best self, whatever that might be. That’s what Bill Belichick would do, anyway.
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