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Linebacker talent, depth provide unique challenge for Buckeyes

Al Washington-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes
Al Washington and the Buckeyes have a deep linebackers room. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Linebacker talent, depth provide unique challenge for Buckeyes

COLUMBUS — It would seem that Al Washington is going to have a much easier offseason this year at Ohio State.

After revitalizing a linebacker unit from historically bad to one of the best in the country last offseason, Washington has nearly his entire unit back for this upcoming season with the Buckeyes. That could make for an easy few months.

But Washington certainly has another challenge in front of him, and that’s a good thing. Where do all these talented veteran linebackers fit into the Ohio State defense? It’s a good problem to have for Washington, but it’s one that will need to be solved.

The coming weeks during spring practice will be key for finding room for the talent in place.

“We have to do a really good job of trying to create ways to think outside the conventional defense and put guys in roles so that they can do what they do best,” Washington said. “That is what we’re doing now.”

What Washington and the Buckeyes are doing now includes a lot of shuffling. Pete Werner has been moving and playing more of an inside linebacker role; he played a lot of outside linebacker last season. Baron Browning is taking reps on the outside and becoming a do-it-all weapon from that role on the field. Last season, he began inside and worked his way out as the season progressed. Tuf Borland has stayed inside where he fits.

But it’s not just the projected starters doing the moving for the Buckeyes. Justin Hilliard is experimenting with different roles in the Silver Bullets defense. Teradja Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant are trying to find a place on the field, wherever it may come.

“We’ve got a big group of talented linebackers,” Browning said. “So you can just get a lot of guys on the field and just roll guys so everybody can play and keep guys fresh.”

The big group isn’t always a good thing. In today’s college football, transfers are common and depth can lead to unhappy players. That doesn’t seem to be the case at Ohio State, where the culture is strong. And it’s especially strong in Washington’s linebackers room.

Al Washington-Ohio State-Ohio State football-Buckeyes

Al Washington has a unique challenge for the linebackers. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

The Buckeyes lean on their culture and depth to keep their linebackers in a position to contribute.

“If we are a team and we do support each other, we’ve got to put ourselves on the back-burner,” Washington said.

“With all that being said, I played football. Everybody wants to play. I think we’ve got to do a really good job of keeping them engaged. Fortunately last year, all of those guys played, and it wasn’t like they played in the fourth quarter when the game was over. They played in some critical moments. So I think that piece of it helps. But it’s a daily deal, and it’s a culture deal, and it’s a brotherhood deal.”

That wasn’t always the case with the linebacker unit. It has taken time to develop the same culture that has helped other position groups for the Buckeyes. A year after coach Ryan Day said he wanted the linebackers to become a breeding ground for competition, it has become one.

“There’s a lot of healthy competition right there,” Day said at last July’s Big Ten media days. “And we want that room to look like the defensive line room has looked in the past, where we’ve got a lot of guys in that room that have [rotated]. Larry Johnson has built that room up to where you look at the guys who have come before and then the young guys who are there.

“There’s a mentorship going on in that room, and we want to build that in the linebacker room. Al Washington is working on that.”

The linebacker room was built last year. That was the challenge of the first-year coach Washington in 2019, and he accomplished it while elevating their level of play. This season, it’s a different challenge Washington faces. He’s trying to find room for at least seven talented linebackers to fill three — and sometimes two, depending on the defense — spots on the field.

It’s a good problem to have. But that doesn’t mean Al Washington’s offseason is any easier this season than it was last year.

Spencer Holbrook

Spencer Holbrook covers Ohio State football and basketball for Lettermen Row. A graduate of Ohio University's Scripps School of Journalism, he's in his second year covering the Buckeyes. He was previously the sports editor at Ohio's student newspaper, The Post, where he covered Ohio University football and men's basketball.

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