Back when former Ohio State cornerbacks coach Kerry Coombs was trying to create a 3-man — or even 4-man — rotation at cornerback, he would frequently have people asking him why.
He would explain his position and also remark that nobody had any problem with defensive ends rotating, so why should people be so preoccupied with corners doing the same thing?
Coombs was correct. A third cornerback at 100% was more effective than a starter at 80%, and three talented guys constantly at 90% is a prescription for success.
That cornerback rotation is expected to be gone this season, but a new one may be emerging at linebacker.
There are 11 scholarship linebackers on the Ohio State roster right now, and more than half of them could be regular fixtures on the field this season.
Starters Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland, and Pete Werner all return, and there are talented players behind them working hard to earn playing time. Only two linebackers from last year’s team are gone, which gives you another measure of the amount of returning experience.
The sheer number of options at the position is one reason why head coach Ryan Day is looking at another position of depth as the model for how to make a rotation work.
“We want that room to look like the defensive line room has looked in the past,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys in that room that have, and Larry Johnson has built that room up to where you look at the guys who have come before and then the young guys who are there, there’s a mentorship going on in that room, and we want to build that in the linebacker room, and Al Washington is working on that.”
Washington is the position coach in charge of figuring out how to get good reps for the guys who deserve to play. It is also a versatile group featuring players with all kinds of different strengths and weaknesses, and Day wants as many of those strengths on the field as possible.
“We have a lot of depth at linebacker, and with the new scheme, we actually have the ability to use different personnel groupings,” he said. “We’ll put five DB’s in a game, we’ll put three linebackers in a game and kind of mix that up.”
The Buckeyes played four linebackers pretty consistently last year. Borland, Harrison, and Werner played the most, but Baron Browning started a few games and came in on passing downs. And second-year guys Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant, and K’Vaughan Pope are all in the two-deep now.
That’s seven guys, and that’s leaving out three true freshmen and fifth-year senior Justin Hilliard who was injured in the spring.
Competitions will take place in fall camp, but even those who don’t win starting jobs could still find valuable roles in this defense.
“Tuf Borland played a lot for us last year and he’s being pushed,” Day said. “He’s being pushed by Teradja Mitchell. You’re going to see Baron Browning, Malik Harrison, Pete Werner. You’re going to see a lot of these guys playing next year.”
When Ryan Day looks at his roster, he sees speed, size, and talent everywhere, and so he is already asking his coaches to find as much room for these skills as possible.
“Al Washington has got his hands full,” Day said. “I talk to him all the time about you’ve got to figure out who’s going to play, and it’s a good thing. There’s a lot of healthy competition right there.”