Ohio State recruits linebackers as well as any school in the country.
Last season, they had five linebackers who had all been ranked as 5-star prospects in high school — and none of them won starting jobs.
Despite the lofty rankings throughout the room, the Buckeye linebackers didn’t play up to their expectations. At times they didn’t even come close.
It wasn’t all bad, of course, but there has been a noticeable downturn over the past two seasons at the position. Now, with new linebackers coach Al Washington at the helm, and co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison helping out with the Sams and Bullets, positive changes are expected.
The issues last year were plenty, but it is quite possible the Buckeyes could start the same three linebackers they started last year, which would lend itself to the argument that most of the blame belongs to last year’s coaching staff.
After a spring camp with a good, long look at most of the Buckeye linebackers, there were only good things said by new and old coaches alike.
Fourth-year junior captain Tuf Borland was held out due to a minor knee injury. That injury allowed Washington and company to get some experience for sophomore Teradja Mitchell, which went very well. When Borland was healthy, all three of him, Mitchell, and junior Baron Browning repped with the first team.
Junior Pete Werner was the starter at Sam and senior Malik Harrison was the starter at Will, just as they were last season. They had talented players behind them, but nothing has really changed since the close of camp in April.
“Not really since the end of spring. Kind of the same guys in there, and they’re all battling,” head coach Ryan Day said. “We’ve got a lot of players there. We’ve got some good depth with a lot of experience. They’re a hungry group, now. They’ve read things. They’re ready to go, and they’re hungry, which is fun to be around. There’s not a lot of smiles on our faces right now, which you like as a coach. i think we’re going to see some great things from those guys this year.”
When Day said his linebackers have “read things,” he’s talking about the criticism from the media and from fans on social media. When a player can look at his phone and see an article about the question marks at his position or have notifications pinging him from social media telling him directly just how terrible he is at football, it’s not going to just slide away.
The real motivation, however, is simply upholding a certain standard at Ohio State. It just so happens that Ryan Day had to go get two former Michigan coaches to try and make that happen.
But if you think about it, nobody is as tuned into Ohio State’s standard of excellence as Michigan is.
“That’s a really talented group,” Mattison said. “That’s a group that when you get the 40 times that were just tested and you see them walking in that meeting room every day you just go, ‘Whoa.’ Some of these guys look like defensive ends and they run 4.5, 4.6. I think it’s a very talented group, I think it’s a very deep group and the big thing, they’re young. When you’re a young football player you always want to use just talent, but you can’t do that and be as successful as we want to be and we have to be.”
Mattison has also liked what he’s seen from his own personal group of linebackers at the Sam and Bullet.
“I think Pete Werner had a really, really good spring,” he said. “I think he’s going to be a heck of a football player. And Brendon White being a Bullet is like a Sam. He’s done a good job. Jahsen Wint has done a really good job, (K’Vaughan) Pope, we’ve got a lot of talent there.”
With the ongoing simplification of the defense as a whole, there is also a refocusing on the fundamentals. There were times last season when the linebackers weren’t as sound as they needed to be, whether it be their own personal physical breakdown or a mental lapse like losing contain.
“The biggest thing now is fundamentals,” Mattison said. “Really, really seeing if we can make that freshman be a junior. If you can make that sophomore be a senior. That’s what we’re trying to do every day and Al does a great job of that. We’re working on fundamentals, on footwork, on punching the sled, on all those kinds of things. Because of the talent level, it’s a very talented group.”
Simple fundamentals will eliminate most big plays on the ground. Few teams in the nation possess Ohio State’s speed and athleticism at linebacker, so if they simply eliminate the mistakes, they should be making plays all over the field this season.