Since the 2018 season ended, speculation about the 2019 edition of the Ohio State defense began.
Most of the questions and concerns revolved around the Buckeye linebackers.
It was an off year for the position as a whole, with middle linebacker Tuf Borland and Sam linebacker Pete Werner receiving the most criticism from onlookers.
Borland was returning from an Achilles injury in the spring and even throughout the season there were times when he didn’t look completely healthy.
And due to Ohio State’s defensive scheme, Werner frequently found himself manned up against a slot receiver who would then motion out wide.
That’s no place for a linebacker to find success.
It wasn’t all just scheme and injury that brought struggles. Mistakes were made and tackles were missed. Both players were just sophomores, after all. No player is the best version of themselves after just two years on the field.
Co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison was brought over from Michigan. Unable to exist without coaching a position, he took over the Sam linebackers from fellow former Michigan coach Al Washington.
Mattison has seen the linebackers first hand in the spring and now in fall camp. None of OSU’s current coaches have openly spoken about why the defense struggled last season. Instead, they keep their words focused on 2019.
Those words have been soaked in optimism, which has excited some Buckeye fans, angered others, and disappointed a few as well.
Much like secondary coach Jeff Hafley has said he has seen none of the downs from cornerback Damon Arnette, Mattison has seemingly been blown away by the Buckeye linebackers so far. Especially the two who have received the most criticism from those on the outside.
“I like everything about Tuf Borland’s game,” Mattison said. “Tuf Borland is another one that comes out to practice every day, extremely intelligent. Takes great pride in getting the front lined up. Our backers have all bought into the one thing I think is really, really important, and that’s communicating.
“You know, everybody looks at a linebacker and he’s got to be able to blitz and tackle and run. The number one thing he’s got to be able to do is get maybe the best defensive line in the Big Ten lined up and ready to go because they have a — say a tempo running to the football and then having to see what the signal is, so people have to take pride in doing that.
“Tuf and the other linebackers have done a great job of that, and I like his physicality. I like his intelligence. I like everything about his game.”
Fully healthy and no longer playing in a defensive scheme that asks the linebackers to protect the defensive line or go through a mental checklist that would make NASA blush, Borland and his teammates have responded in camp. To a man they have raved about the new system, while also being careful not to speak too much about what the problems were last year.
Another one of the beneficiaries of this new system is Werner.
“I really believe he is a top guy at his position,” Mattison said. “I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of pretty good football players and I am really impressed with him. I mean, he plays extremely hard. He’s very physical. He’s got great size and strength and he can run and he’s got unbelievable character. There’s not many other things that you need to be a good football player and that’s what he’s showing.”
With this being a new system and new coaches installing it, each of the linebackers began with a clean slate. Which means even though Mattison can’t say enough good things about Borland and Werner, he is also not ready to say who will be starting for the Buckeyes at linebacker this season.
“I don’t know that yet. I don’t know that yet. And I don’t mean to be vague on this,” he said. “You know, we won’t talk about the starters until we get close to that game. In our opinion, anybody that is doing well could be a starter. With the tempo we’re going to see, with the way teams are going to try to attack us, we’d better have a first starter or a second starter and a third starter, and that’s how I look at it.
“So when it comes time to say, who is the starter, then the position coach and Jeff and I will all sit down and say, ‘Okay, yeah, this is what we’re going to go with.’ I don’t know what it is right now.”