When it comes to being a versatile football player, it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish starting.
The Ohio State linebackers as a group showcase this versatility with their ability to switch positions. Most of the OSU linebackers played more than one spot this spring. Wills spent time at Sam, Sams at Will, and sophomore Baron Browning spent time both outside and inside. The Buckeyes’ defensive system aids this along by having similar responsibilities for the outside linebackers.
The middle, however, is a completely different animal. And the fact that it isn’t for everyone is what makes the situation this year so critical.
Ohio State had to replace two-year starter Raekwon McMillan following the 2016 season, and their plan to have Chris Worley step in for him did not work. When Tuf Borland entered into the equation, things got better. But with Borland now on the shelf with an Achilles tendon injury until possibly September, linebackers coach Bill Davis had to put OSU’s versatility to work.
Browning was moved to the middle in order to provide some competition for fourth-year junior Justin Hilliard. They needed competition at that spot, and they got it.
“After Tuf got hurt, we moved him,” Davis said of Browning following spring ball. “We started him outside, so he’s a guy who can flip a little bit. So can Justin. At the end of last year, Justin was out there at Will, too. There’s a couple guys who can play Mike and Will, but for the most part we’re trying to switch the outside and leave the inside alone.”
Browning and Hilliard got the vast majority of the work at middle linebacker this spring. Browning played the position a year ago as well, but it wasn’t necessarily seen as his eventual home. Davis started him out in the middle so that he could learn the defense and the positions, which would then make the transition outside easier for him.
The move inside, however, doesn’t need to be permanent. If Browning can establish himself as one of the team’s top three or four linebackers, then he could move back outside once Borland returns to his 100% self.
“Baron or Justin could, yeah,” Davis said. “That’s one of the great things about the flexibility of the defense and the scheme, is that if we can teach them and train them right, they have that ability to move out there. So you put your next best player out there, not just the next guy that knows Will, if that makes sense.”
As is said every year, the three best linebackers will play, and they’ll figure out where to best put those three. Last year, those three were Worley, Jerome Baker, and Dante Booker, and the plan didn’t work out as well as hoped. This year, however, there will be more options at middle linebacker.
Borland should eventually be back, and true freshman Teradja Mitchell was the No. 2 inside linebacker recruit in the nation last year, so don’t forget about him during all of this either. Borland likely won’t be ready for camp, but Mitchell will be, as will Hilliard and Browning. And while both Hilliard or Browning could kick outside, they won’t be doing it when camp gets underway.
“They’ll start [fall camp] at Mike,” Davis said. “I love the competition. All the positions are in such a strong battle, it’s so healthy. They’re all driven, they’re all helping each other.
“It’s a different animal you fight when you have solid starters and the backups think they’re backups. I don’t have backups that think they’re backups, and that’s a great thing. They’re swinging hard to improve every day to get to where they want to be.”