Reader Mail: Thoughts on the Buckeye Linebackers

Ohio State Football Buckeyes Tuf Borland Linebacker

If you have any questions you want rambled on about, feel free to shoot me an email or respond in the comments below or hit me up on Twitter or over on the forum or key a brief question into the side of my car. I’m pretty breezy.

Question: I’m not a technical football guy, so I wanted to get your thoughts on our linebacker play last year. Looked pretty sketchy vs. Oklahoma, Iowa, and maybe even ttun. Perhaps in some other games where we outclassed opponents too, though I think it was much better the last half of the year. I know we had injuries/guys out of position, and Baker’s year was confusing to me. That said, it seems way too simplistic to me (and again, I don’t really know) to think that Fickell left and in year one the LBs suddenly struggle because of a new position coach. — Nicholas S.

I am not a technical football guy either. I’m self taught, which means that I could successfully perform an emergency tracheotomy with a pen, but I would most definitely be sued for doing so.

We have talked about the linebackers in depth on Accost the Field from time to time. For me, it is the most interesting position to watch this year. For some, there may be as many doubts as expectations. Last year put a stain on plenty of Scarlet and Gray hearts and minds, but I keep going back to the change in the defense when Tuf Borland was at middle linebacker and Chris Worley was not.

As I wrote about back in the spring, only one time in Borland’s nine starts last year did the Ohio State defense give up a touchdown drive that wasn’t aided by a turnover or a special teams gaffe. That means that only one time when the Buckeyes punted or kicked off to an opponent, did they then drive down for a touchdown. And it didn’t happen until the Michigan game.

So no, I’m not a football guy, but that seems like a pretty significant thing. No, he didn’t start against Oklahoma or Iowa or Penn State, but he still played in the latter two games and things didn’t go great. Still, he was clearly the best option in the middle for the Buckeyes and things went better when he was in there. He is back — eventually — and we should expect him to play even better than he did a year ago.

I don’t know how to explain Jerome Baker’s performance. Maybe he was looking ahead to the NFL, or maybe Greg Schiano and Bill Davis put too much on him because he was in his second year as a starter. Let’s not forget, as a sophomore in 2016 when he had to step in for Dante Booker, Baker was often lined up incorrectly according to his coaches, but was talented enough to make up for it. Maybe there was paralysis by analysis last season because he knew more and was being tasked with more.

If you look at his stats, they were pretty similar to his “impressive” 2016 season. He had 83 tackles (45 solo), 9.5 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks in 13 games in 2016. In 13 games last year, he finished with 72 tackles (42 solo), 8.0 TFLs, and 3.5 sacks.

The problem I have with pinning everything — or the bulk of everything — on Bill Davis is that there were so many reasons we can point to for their struggles, such as injuries, players playing out of position, a new coach getting to know his players, or Greg Schiano simply asking too much.

I think losing Raekwon McMillan after the 2016 season and not having somebody in the pipeline to step in for him set them back. That forced Chris Worley to play a position that clearly wasn’t for him. He played better outside, and so did the defense when he finally moved there last year.

The Mike is the quarterback of the defense, and we’ve seen what happens to an entire offense when the quarterback is having issues. It wouldn’t be unfair to think there would be similar struggles on defense if the middle linebacker is having issues. Let’s not forget what the 2012 defense looked like before Zach Boren moved over from fullback.

That’s why for me, I expect much more from the linebackers this year. Tuf Borland is the middle linebacker. He gives the defense stability. Or at least he will when he comes back healthy. Everything else will then cascade down from there.

The unfortunate thing for the Buckeyes, of course, is that Borland is recovering from an Achilles injury and we don’t know how much — if any — fall camp he’ll have. So we may see another slow start with a middle linebacker playing out of position this year, but Mike candidates Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning have already played more in the middle than Chris Worley ever did before he was given the job.

The number of options makes this position incredibly intriguing, but the stability of Borland should make the intrigue a good thing this year, instead of the bad thing it was a year ago.

If there are issues again this season, however, then the fingers will point even more forcefully at the man doing the coaching.

9 Responses

  1. The key point to me is that in 2012 WITH Fickell, the linebacking was terrible and most of the people who frequent this board were asking for his head on a plate with a red (scarlet?) apple stuffed right down the middle. I believe it was UM who saved Fickell from the the full roast. Anyway, given that even the legendary (at least recently) Fickell had problems at one time or another, it seems to me that Bill Davis is not necessarily the problem, but it may be putting the right people in the right position. If Zach Boren – who by the way was a pretty good Mike in HS – was given the keys, (mixing my metaphors i know) then who’s to say that Tuf or Baron or anybody with Mike skills and experience wouldn’t shore up the position. So, put me on record as saying that Linebacking will be just fine. I have zero concerns about this team – maybe the second safety so that means I have a little more than zero concerns about this team. Go Bucks!

    1. Zero concerns huh…how is it looking at the world through scarlet & gray lenses? I always wanted to know.

      1. Very bright and beautiful! By the way my lenses are Scarlet colored and don’t forget it! LOL! Peace.

    2. Luke Fickell had just returned to the linebacker room in 2012. In 2011, the “we got shafted” year, Luke wasn’t teaching linebackers except from an overview. Once he returned in 2012 things CERTAINLY got a lot better than the junk from 2011.

      He was no offensive mind, but that is where he had to at least try to focus most of his attention as the interim HC in 2011. Mike Vrabel was a great player but he certainly wasn’t good working as a first year coach with the linebackers.. Luke still should have done a better job as the interim, but you can’t lay the entire blame on him for the disaster of 2011. That crapstorm belonged on others long before it belonged to him. Improvements were noticeable in 2012 from the LB’s.

      The wreck of a secondary and some of the worst defensive coordinating I’ve ever seen in my life belongs to Everett Withers, not Luke Fickell.

  2. Luke Fickell loaded that linebacker room with some of the finest talents in the United States of America………therefore the world. There are physical specimens, athletic freaks, and guys who have known the linebacker position for most of their lives, or at least since beginning in Pop Warner. Football is simple and it’s complicated at the same time, but at the end of the day it remains as Chris Spielman would say, “see ball, get ball.” The complication part is what is being taught, and where the guys were lining up, and what was being required of their individual position, and what adjustments were being taught. There’s not a guy in that room who lacks the intelligence to read and comprehend. Not a one of them are incapable of physically bringing all of that together instantly.

    People want to argue when I say that Greg Schiano has had to spend a lot more time with the linebackers than with any other position group,. Don’t care, it’s a fact. 2017 was a trainwreck for the linebackers because they didn’t have a teacher, they had a video game operator. It matters not whether CEO Meyer or Greg saw the problem, proactive steps have been taken to correct the problem

    The only ways the LB room could sputter like they did last year and force the coordinator to step into the room on a frequent basis, was lack of position development, or a failure in being physically incapable, OR, there was mutiny among the players, which is pretty far fetched since all of them want to play on Sundays.

    Jerome Baker is going to have an impact in the pro’s………once they fill in the gaps of miseducation from 2017. I think Chris Worley might wind up at safety because he’s a prototypical downhill assassin.

    If the linebackers sputter throughout the 2018 season, and the huge question marks concerning the offense not adequately dealt with, it’s going to be a really bumpy ride. By sheer talent alone this team should win a bunch of games. The questions arise when the talent disparity is marginalized and certain coaches have to be on top of adjusting better than the opponent in tight games. With Luke running linebackers it was “next question of concern.” That’s because he knew who, how, when and where for the 3 spots in his unit room. We’ll see if Greg and Bill Davis can put their heads together and at least get the last 3 of those reasonably right in 2018. Number 1 is the player element and that room is full of outstanding players and young men.

  3. Talent is not a key with LB’s. There’s no reason why our LB’s should not be flying off the boards at the same clip as our DB’s. Your finger pointing Tony is in touch!

  4. In 2017 the LB room missed Luke Fickell terribly. Hopefully that coaching gap has been addressed.

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