There aren’t many 6-foot-4 240-pound linebackers who run in the 4.5s, so if you can find one, you better make it count.
Ohio State signed one such linebacker in the 2017 recruiting class in Baron Browning, out of Fort Worth, Texas. Browning played in 12 games as a true freshman last season for the Buckeyes, picking up 14 tackles in mostly special teams duty.
Browning began his career at middle linebacker, but linebackers coach Bill Davis always said that a move outside could be a possibility. This past spring, that possibility became a reality as Browning practiced at the Will linebacker. An Achilles tendon injury to starting middle linebacker Tuf Borland early in spring camp, however, changed a few plans.
Browning was moved back to the middle where he competed with fourth-year junior Justin Hilliard to be the Buckeyes’ middle linebacker in Borland’s absence.
Browning closed spring in a strong fashion, which was encouraging for Davis.
“I would say he took some big steps, and I think he had a good spring game,” he said. “It was one of his better practices of the year. I think Baron is constantly growing. I’m excited for his skill set along with his growth.”
Had Borland not gotten injured, Browning would have stayed outside and competed for a starting spot there. With Borland out until around September, Browning’s move back to the middle may only be temporary, but it isn’t being approached lightly.
And with Browning having a handle on multiple linebacker positions, it gives Davis the flexibility to find his best three linebackers and fit them in a fashion that makes the most sense.
“We’re just trying to get the best group on there at the same time,” Davis said. “It strengthens his ability to play Mike backer when he understands the Will next to him. I think as we go that’s a bonus that you have in the NFL that I’m finding it a little bit harder to get in college because they’re so new to all of it. But I think it’s an athleticism trait that he can go outside or inside.”
The athleticism traits that Davis speaks of aren’t unheard of at Ohio State. This is the same school that has produced athletic linebackers like Ryan Shazier, Jerome Baker, Darron Lee, and A.J. Hawk. But none of those guys have been as big as Baron Browning.
With his combination of size and athleticism, he is the prototype at any of the three linebacker positions. But he is still raw and unproven. Last year was a difficult year for the Buckeye linebackers. Injuries took their toll, as did inconsistencies.
Ohio State can’t afford those same mistakes this year, but there are so many unknowns at linebacker that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see more struggles in 2018.
Eventually, however, the inexperience has to give way to experience. Production has to come from the potential, and few Buckeye linebackers have ever had as much potential as Baron Browning.
Getting him to reach that potential is Bill Davis’ job, and if Browning falls short, Davis knows where the fingers will be pointing.
“As young as he is, there’s so much left to grow and so much left to do,” he said. “When I think of Baron, I think of how much work I have left with him. How much potential he has. But if he doesn’t reap that potential, that’s on me. I have to make sure I can drive him to do that. I’m very excited to work with him. I think he has a huge upside.”