Ohio State must replace 49 career starts at the linebacker position this season. With two-year starters Jerome Baker and Chris Worley now gone, the Buckeyes not only went about replacing their production, but also their leadership.
That process took a hit this spring when third-year sophomore middle linebacker Tuf Borland suffered an Achilles tendon injury. The injury took Borland out of action, and it eliminated part of the growth process that every team needs.
The show must always go on, however, and with the importance that Urban Meyer places on leadership, Borland’s loss didn’t mean the end of building leaders.
In fact, it will be an ongoing process all season long.
“The competition is going to push them and drive them to get better, but it’s a good group of like-minded young men,” OSU linebackers coach Bill Davis said this spring. “You can tell when a group likes each other and has that chemistry, and this group has it.”
The Buckeyes left without knowing who their starting linebackers are going to be this season, but they weren’t too concerned about that. Overall, it is a versatile group, as shown by juniors Keandre Jones and Malik Harrison moving back and forth from both outside linebacker spots.
As third-year players, Jones and Harrison know the ropes, which allowed them to show the coaches and their teammates that they can lead.
Without Borland, fourth-year junior Justin Hilliard and sophomore Baron Browning manned the middle. In Ohio State’s defense — and most others — the middle linebacker is the quarterback of the defense and requires leadership in action. While Borland’s injury wasn’t a blessing in disguise, it did allow more players to emerge as leaders at a position where there was so much missing.
“We had a bunch of guys take steps in leadership, but even Tuf is growing into that role,” Davis said. “It’s exciting to watch them take their leadership role. We talk about leadership being more about actions than words, and I think that’s kind of what they’re trying to do.”
Once Borland went down, the linebackers participating this spring had a grand total of one career start. With that kind of inexperience, leadership can be hard to come by.
But this is also a group that has had to wait their turn, and now their respective leadership styles are starting to shine through.
Borland will be back in September, and when he does return, the Buckeye coaches aren’t expecting him to be the only leader in the linebacker room.
“Some of the personalities lead more,” Davis said. “Keandre’s got a very strong personality in the room. Malik is a playmaker that’s got a lot of people looking at him. Baron’s a young man and Justin Hilliard are both Mike backers that are in charge and in front of people a lot.”