Ohio State returns all three starting linebackers from last season in Tuf Borland, Malik Harrison, and Pete Werner. In fact, they lost just two linebackers from last year’s team.
The Buckeyes were two or three players deep this spring at each linebacker position, which gave new linebackers coach Al Washington plenty to watch throughout camp.
Spring was also made more interesting with the inclusion of the hybrid safety/linebacker “Bullet” position, but there will still be a Will, Mike, and Sam at linebacker at times this season.
Injuries took their toll this spring. Fifth-year senior Justin Hilliard suffered an Achilles injury which put his 2019 season in doubt. Borland took a helmet to the knee midway through camp that required attention and precaution, limiting him to walking and watching for the final couple of weeks. Junior Baron Browning returned from spring break a little dinged, but he got through it just fine.
Tuf Borland OR
Baron Browning OR
Justin Hilliard (Inj.)
Ohio State’s new defense features two inside linebackers in the Will and the Mike, and one outside linebacker in the Sam. The Sam and the hybrid linebacker/safety position known as the Bullet are interchangeable and generally won’t be on the field together. You’re likely to see more of the Sam against a power run team or in short-yardage situations, and you’re more likely to see the Bullet against spread teams. For the purposes of these previews, the Bullet is considered a safety, and you can read about that more here if you like.
“It’s been awesome and here’s why: every kid knows that [there are no pre-conceived notions]. So you get everybody’s best. Nobody’s comfortable. Nobody’s complacent. Everybody is growth-minded. Everybody is eager. And so as a coach, I’m not coaching effort, and I’m not saying at a place like this you ever would, but it’s human nature, right? So it’s been awesome because everybody has bought into that and actually helping each other. Oddly enough, guys are very supportive of each other, but when they’re out there, they want it. So it’s been fun in that way.” — Al Washington on how the spring was going after a few practices.
We’ll cover this more in the coming days, but in defenses like the one Ohio State is playing now, ideally the Will and the Mike are interchangeable. It’s not unlike the OSU defenses of the mid-to-late ’00s when guys like Andrew Sweat or Ross Homan could play either spot. With three men battling to be the starting middle linebacker right now, however, it doesn’t appear as though Al Washington will need to slide a Will over to step up and take over.
The Buckeyes will have three true sophomore linebackers in the two deep this season. Dallas Gant worked behind senior Malik Harrison at the Will, Teradja Mitchell was behind senior Tuf Borland and junior Baron Browning at the Mike, and K’Vaughan Pope was behind junior Pete Werner. The great thing about spring ball, however, is that each of the three received a large number of reps and saw some time with the ones. Mitchell actually spent several days with the ones because of injuries to Borland and Browning. Now that he’s had a taste, he’ll be even hungrier to win the battle when it gets back under way in fall camp. All three sophomores will also be heavily involved in special teams.
A simplified defense was one of the big stories of spring ball and it should allow this defense to play faster. With the size, speed, and athleticism the Buckeyes have at linebacker, this should lead to a much more productive position group. Being allowed to make quick reads and then react to the play is all a linebacker is asking for, and while none of the linebackers were throwing last year’s system under the bus, they were all happy to be making a change. Senior Malik Harrison didn’t have the heaviest workload this spring, but everyone expects him to be a leader and a producer for this defense. Ohio State has had great linebacker play for decades. It’s time to get back to the standard.
Everybody is back, save for Dante Booker and Keandre Jones. All told, 256 of the 278 linebacker tackles from last season return, which is a luxury that few teams possess. Ohio State and Purdue are the only Big Ten teams that return each of their starting linebackers from 2018. And while returning starters is nice, the Buckeyes also have non-starters who are going to be competing for starting jobs this fall as well. With a new linebackers coach in town, nobody can rest on what they have done in the past.