The linebacker unit had it’s turn to meet with the press today. The overriding impression was that this is a veteran, deep and versatile group that expects great things this season. Coach Al Washington and players Tuf Borland, Baron Browning and Pete Werner were made available for interview.
Linebacker Coach Al Washington
One of the first topics discussed was one that is near and dear to the heart of every linebacker coach, tackling. In the early games this season around the country the tackling has been less-than stellar. Washington talked about what the Buckeyes could do to address that problem despite having had pads on only one day since last season. “The number one thing is to coach them to have eyes up when they tackle,” said Washington. “The other thing is feet. Getting the near foot planted in the ground. You can coach those things without having pads on.”
Washington went on to describe a drill that put a running back and a linebacker “in a box” in which the linebacker had to track the runner in that space and arrive with his eyes up and his proper foot placement. Tackling, said Washington, is an emphasis, and there are things the Buckeyes have been doing to improve in that area despite the lack of hitting.
The Buckeyes are not just loaded with talent at linebacker, they are loaded with veteran, experienced talent. The veteran group alone includes Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Justin Hilliard and Baron Browning. Then there are players like Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope waiting in the wings. Having all that talent is great, but keeping it happy is another isssue. Washington says it is hard, but the coaching staff has adopted an approach of making sure everyone has a role, then making sure that everyone gets the opportunity to exercise that role. That may make for some positions that are shared, but will put more players on the field and help keep more players happy.
The abundance of versatility and skill in the linebacker room is going to allow the OSU coaching staff to coach to match ups this season, something every defensive coach wants to do. Matchup substituting will be very prevalent for this year’s OSU defense.
Washington said that he is much more comfortable now that he is in his second year with the OSU linebacker corps . He has more comfort with the players not just as players, but as people. The word he used to describe the change is “aware”. Now that he knows the players better he can be more aware of their needs and be a better coach for them.
Washington said that Tuf Borland has made a greater effort to be a more vocal leader this year and has done a great job of accomplishing that.
Washington is excited about the overall talent in his room but did take the opportunity to mention Tommy Eichenberg as a player who is doing an excellent job now that he is back at full strength.
Like Washington, Browning was asked how the Buckeyes might be able to avoid the poor tackling that seems to be prevalent in the early games around college football this season. His answer pretty much mirrored Washington’s, that despite the lack of time in pads there were things that could be worked on like eye placement and tracking.
Browning was asked if with all the veteran talent at linebacker the younger players who weren’t seeing the field as much could be frustrated. He said they definitely could, but they have to understand that sometime you have to wait your turn. He himself has had to do that very thing and experienced some of that frustration, but you get past it by concentrating on being the very best you can be and getting better every day so when your turn comes you are ready.
Browning will be moving to the Sam linebacker position this season after playing at the Wil last year. He will be sharing the Sam with Justin Hilliard. Both Hilliard and Browning are former five-star recruits, so OSU will have a 10-star lineup at that position. Browning is very happy with his move to Wil, saying it is the position he played in high school and a more natural position for him. Last year Browning showed promise as a pass rusher with his hand on the ground in sure-passing situations. He’s hoping for more pass rushing opportunities this season.
Browning says he is happy to be sharing a position with Justin Hilliard, calling Hilliard a true warrior. It would have been easy for Hilliard to have quit football due to his injuries but he has stuck it out. “I’m proud of him and proud to be his teammate,” said Browning.
Borland said he spent much of the off-season trying to improve his body. He is now a much leaner and more athletic player even though he actually gained weight.
The linebackers as a group are the most experienced group on the defense. As such they will have a larger leadership role on this year’s defensive team as a whole. They will set the tone as far as toughness an energy
Borland described the Mike linebacker position as one in which you had to be able to bang with 300-pound offensive linemen yet still be able to drop into coverage and play in space.
Getting back into pads and hitting brought a glint to Borland’s eye. He missed the hitting, but now it’s back. “It feels like a fall football season,” he said.
Like Borland, Werner has missed the tackling aspect of football and is happy to finally have it back. He did say that the Buckeyes would kind of ease into the hitting to avoid senseless injury. “We’re not going to be killing each other for four weeks,” he said. “We’ll ease into it.”
Werner will be making a position change this year, moving from the Sam linebacker position to the Wil. That change appeals to him. “I do like it,” he said. “I like playing down in the box. It feels good.”
Despite all the competition for playing time Werner called the linebacker group one of the closest units on the team. For that he credit coaches Washington and Maddison who have done a great job of providing cohesive leadership.
Werner was asked about the tackling issue and what the Buckeyes could do to avoid poor tackling despite the lack of time in pads with hitting. Werner said that working on tracking the ball is the number one thing. “Tracking is 80 per cent of tackling” said Werner.