The Buckeyes are returning two starting linebackers from last season, having lost just Malik Harrison from a year ago.
Starters Pete Werner and Tuf Borland return, as do five other upperclassmen with experience.
Seniors Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard have as much experience as regular starters, and juniors K’Vaughan Pope, Teradja Mitchell, and Dallas Gant have all seen plenty of action and been in the two-deep for most of their respective careers.
With two starters returning, it would seem logical to think that those two starters would just stay where they were, leaving essentially five other linebackers vying for the one open spot.
That expectation was thrown for a bit of a loop in the spring when Werner was working inside at Will linebacker as opposed to outside at Sam like he did the year before. Browning was no longer in the middle with Borland and the plan was for him to move outside and also rush the passer.
With just three practices in the spring before everything was shut down, linebackers coach Al Washington didn’t get a very long look at the position moves. Nor did last year’s backups have an opportunity to win a starting job.
When asked recently if he even had a depth chart at this point, Washington said he did not.
“To be honest, it’s hard to make that statement because we had so few practices. And it’s hard to change what was with three practices,” he said. “So to answer your question, no I don’t have a [depth chart]. We have our thoughts, but I’m not gonna make a declaration at this point. Hopefully, with the practices we do have it can help bring some clarity to some things, if there’s anything outside of what it already was.
“But I do know this, the younger guys like Teradja who are growing up, Dallas Gant, K’Vaughan Pope, those guys, they’re going to be critical to our success. So they’ll get a lot of playing time. They’ll make an impact. But I couldn’t give you much more than that. That’s what we’re anticipating.”
With so much experience returning, it will make for an exciting competition when Washington does actually get to start setting the depth chart. With just the seven upperclassmen, the Buckeye linebackers have 21 years of experience. That’s multiple fall camps, spring camps, and untold numbers of position meetings.
They have made mistakes, been part of different defensive schemes, and learned what it takes to be Ohio State linebackers. Their experience actually allowed them to do more in the spring than most positions, even if it didn’t lead to a clearer picture of the depth chart.
“Fortunately for us, we had a lot of guys back so we were able to ramp up our install the first three practices, so we actually saw quite a broad scope of different things and some things we were experimenting with, so we had good footage of that,” Washington said. “Obviously, you’re not going to get as good a read as if you had 15 practices, but it was good to see what we saw. Obviously, there’s things we weren’t able to do, especially for younger guys, we wanted to see get a ton of reps at it. But we were able to see some things.”
No position on the Ohio State roster was as prepared for a pandemic as the Buckeye linebackers, which wasn’t necessarily the goal at the beginning of winter workouts.
It is a veteran group that will be able to hit the ground running when practice resumes.
Al Washington may not know where everybody will be lining up this season, or in what order, but he’s seen enough of his guys to have an idea of what they do best and where they would be able to do the most in this defense.
“The benefits of out of this whole period, the silver lining if you will, is we had a lot of guys that played a lot of football, so you know what they can do,” he said. “You have an idea of what they can do. Now their mindset shift is we’re approaching a game from a mental standpoint, we’re approaching it from a day-to-day training standpoint.
“So, without taking the hits that you necessarily have in spring, so looking at it through those lenses, I think a guy like Justin Hilliard for example or a guy like Pete or Tuf, or a guy like Baron, those guys can come back maybe with a little more spring in the step. So that’s our mentality. We’re just trying to find ways to continue to get those guys exposed as much as we can to what will help them with what we’re trying to do.”