One of the first questions I wanted an answer for when walking into Monday’s open Ohio State football practice was whether or not seniors Baron Browning and Tuf Borland were still tied together at middle linebacker.
However, Browning was still rehabbing from a minor injury, so he was not practicing. This meant that my main question would have to wait to be answered, but other questions presented themselves along the way.
For one, senior Pete Werner was playing inside at the Will rather than outside at the Sam. Sixth-year senior Justin Hilliard was at the Sam, along with junior K’Vaughan Pope. Borland, as always, was in the middle.
Why was Werner at the Will? Because he is trusted. The Will — regardless of the defensive system — has led the Buckeyes in tackles per game every year since 2009, save for the two years when Raekwon McMillan was starting in the middle.
Werner could be that guy this season, but there is still a long way to go before any decisions are finalized.
On Wednesday, we got to the linebackers and position coach Al Washington, which is where questions were answered and things became clearer. By becoming clearer, however, they were also muddied.
Browning was seen working on pass rush moves with defensive ends Zach Harrison and Tyler Friday. When he made his way over to reporters, he was asked if he was moving to defensive end. He didn’t know, but said he’d do whatever is needed. I then asked him if this was a way to get him and Borland on the field together, which is when he revealed that he was moved from Mike earlier in the winter.
As to which spot he’ll be manning, he didn’t know yet because he’s still injured. The coaches told him to study up on both Sam and Will, which he has been doing.
Where he ends up may depend on how Werner looks at the Will and how Browning looks at the Sam when he returns after spring break.
What is completely clear about Browning’s usage this year, however, is that he will also be rushing the passer, just as he did last year. He was effective on the edge and we should expect that to continue. Be it blitzes, or sliding down as part of the Rushmen, he should once again be one of the Buckeyes’ tackle leaders in the backfield.
Once Werner and Browning find their homes, things should settle in a bit, but this is still going to be a linebacker group where a lot of guys play. That was the case last year, but it could be even more wide open this year.
There are seven upperclassmen at linebacker this season, along with redshirt freshman Craig Young and Tommy Eichenberg, and true freshmen Cody Simon and Mitchell Melton, who have yet to enroll. Al Washington is incredibly high on Young and Eichenberg, but there are seven guys ahead of them who are all itching to play.
Third-year linebackers Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant, and K’Vaughan Pope are likely all entering their junior seasons with almost all of their patience gone. Not that they wouldn’t give everything they have as backups this season, but that their hunger to play will consume their “wait your turn” mentality.
But the thing is, there is room for them this year. Ohio State already showed last year that they can successfully rotate linebackers because they did it with Tuf Borland and Baron Browning.
What it will ultimately come down to, however, is trust. As Tom Orr and I talked about on Wednesday’s podcast, if Al Washington can’t trust somebody, he’s not going to be in the rotation. If he can trust them, however, then he can sit Pete Werner for a series here and there and let Teradja Mitchell get on the field. Or Dallas Gant can run for a bit while Tuf Borland gets a breather.
So Let’s Make a Guess
If you are asking me where it looks like the linebackers will line up this season based on what we know so far, I think it’s entirely too early to say. And I would only answer that question with the understanding that every single one of these linebackers can play multiple spots, so nailing down where they’ll be in September — even knowing where they are in March — doesn’t guarantee anything.
Also, having made many projections in the spring over the years, I can tell you first hand that a lot can happen in May, June, July, and August.
But since you asked nicely, here we go.
If they are already moving Pete Werner around, then that means they want Baron Browning to get a look at Sam. They want to use his speed and athleticism away from the ball, which is what he did in high school. Can he do everything that Werner was asked to do last year? Maybe, maybe not. If he can’t, they won’t ask him.
So that pits Browning in a battle with Justin Hilliard and K’Vaughan Pope, but if Browning is sliding down at times, then maybe that leaves more opportunities for Hilliard and Pope. We also saw plenty 4-4 looks with four linebackers last year. Perhaps we’ll see some 3-4 with Browning as one of the edge rushers this year?
If Werner sticks at Will, he will be backed up by Teradja Mitchell and either Cody Simon or Mitchell Melton when they arrive. Mitchell has been at the Will since at least the start of last season and is comfortable there.
In the middle, it will be Tuf Borland, as it has been for the previous three seasons. He will be backed up by Dallas Gant, Tommy Eichenberg, and either Simon or Melton.
If you want this in depth chart form, it would look like:
Baron Browning OR
Mitchell Melton OR
Cody Simon OR
Freshman Kourt Williams may eventually involve himself here, but he is currently playing safety and projects to the Bullet, which might become more of a thing this season if Werner isn’t at Sam. Or even if he is.
Don’t be surprised if this depth chart looks different in April than it does today, but also don’t be surprised if nothing changes. This is a versatile group of linebackers who can play multiple positions, which can almost render this exercise pointless.
If nothing else, you are at least caught up on what is going on this first week of Ohio State practice. It might all change in two weeks, but with the team headed for spring break next week, this information will be good until at least then.
Use it wisely.