The Ohio State linebacker unit historically is one of the deepest in the country. The Buckeyes have always produced linebackers, but in 2020 they have an embarrassment of riches.
Two of the three starting linebackers are returning, and there are five potential fits for that last spot on the roster.
“We can utilize our talent better, because now we’re not pigeonholed,” position coach Al Washington told Eleven Warriors. “We don’t have two MIKEs and four WILLs. Forget all that. We’ve got linebackers. Everybody kind of has a chance to identify the basics of that spot, and then we can be creative. We can do a good job of putting them in the right spots.”
The best way to get everyone involved is to get creative. The only thing we know about this group is that there is a lot we don’t know. Will the returning players resume their roles from last year? Will the up-and-coming players be given new ones?
The bad news is that we have more questions than answers. The good news is that with the talent in this group, there are no wrong answers.
Ohio State Linebacker Position Breakdown
The two returning linebackers are MIKE Tuf Borland and SAM Pete Werner. They’ve been playing together for the last three seasons at their respective spots. Going into spring camp, the expectation was that these two would resume their previous roles. While things are going to be more fluid than expected, Borland and Werner will still be the leaders of the unit.
Borland is a prototypical middle linebacker and is the least likely of all to change roles. However, he does have some limitations, so he might not be an every down player. With the Buckeyes bursting at the seams with linebacker talent, Borland might see a slight down-tick in playing time. Nevertheless, he is the captain of the defense, and he will start every game if healthy.
Werner is a more interesting player because he has such a unique role in this defense. Instead of playing in a nickel formation like so many teams, the Buckeyes like to leave all three linebackers on the field. They bring in only one safety, though, and essentially make Werner cover downfield. Even though he is listed as a linebacker, he is pretty much a strong safety.
The Projected First-Year Starter
Baron Browning is likely the next in line to take the field for the silver bullets. The senior was the fourth linebacker in 2019, and had plenty of snaps. Browning was third on the team in tackles for a loss in 2019. Since the first two on the list were Harrison and Chase Young, Browning will be the top returning player in that category.
He played in place of both Harrison and Borland at various points last season, so he could easily play inside or outside. However, most of his snaps will probably be from WILL, the spot Harrison is vacating.
Another senior that will look to get more playing time is Justin Hilliard. He saw the field a little bit in 2019, but he will probably have an expanded role. He is another versatile player, so even if he doesn’t start he will be valuable. His role will probably be first linebacker off the bench, especially if Werner is need of relief.
Even though Borland is returning as a team captain and will be a third-year starter, his game has some limitations. This allowed Browning to see significant playing time even though he wasn’t a starter. For this reason, Hilliard should still see the field often.
If Ohio State ever has to go to their bench, the drop off will barely be noticeable.
There are two things an Ohio State linebacker needs to succeed: versatility and special teams ability. Each of these three players have proven themselves on both counts over the last few seasons.
They could all three be starters at many other programs in the country. It seems like Gant will back up MIKE, Mitchell will back up WILL, and Pope will back up SAM. However, take this with a grain of salt. When it comes to players further down the depth chart, Washington will be plugging them in different spots, tinkering, and tweaking.
Fortunately, these are things a coach can only do when he has this much talent.