COLUMBUS — Al Washington flipped the narrative about the Ohio State starting linebackers last season.
In his first season as the Buckeyes linebackers coach, Washington helped a unit that was a defensive liability in 2018 and turned it into one of the most reliable units on the field last season.
Now in Year Two at Ohio State, Washington’s comfort level and his relationships with players has grown, even amid a pandemic that shut down most face-to-face coaching. And the production on the field could reap the benefits.
“This whole period, it’s funny, I almost feel closer to the guys,” Washington said last week during a Zoom call with reporters. “The amount of times you spend on Zoom or the amount of time you spend on the phone because of the fact that you can’t see them, actually in a way, it allowed us to grow closer. I think to those guys, they’ve grown closer to each other, as odd as that sounds.
“So I feel — I wouldn’t say comfort is the word, because it’s not about being comfortable — I feel more aware.”
Washington came to Ohio State from Michigan when Ryan Day was hired, and his job seemed simple enough: Fix the linebackers. All three starters returned last year, and it showed. Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner all improved. Veterans such as Justin Hilliard began to show positive signs. The talented trio of Teradja Mitchell, Dallas Gant and K’Vaughan Pope began to flash. The entire room grew.
Now this season, all but one contributor returns for Washington, who seems to have his hands full with all the talent assembled. The chemistry between player and coach had another full offseason to cultivate.
“He’s brought a lot more energy to the table,” Werner said. “He’s a great guy, great coach. We’re always going to learn stuff from him. He’s kind of that energy-giver when we’re about to play, practice. He’s the guy right there trying to pump us all up as well as being a great coach. He has stepped up to the plate a lot more this year. He’s very comfortable.”
The best way to get comfortable during the last few months, when in-person interaction was at a premium and players were stuck at home, was over Zoom. That didn’t stop the Buckeyes linebackers from drawing closer to their leader.
Washington is officially settled in — on the recruiting trail, in the meeting rooms, on the field. The linebackers are the most experienced, and possibly the deepest, group on the field. Credit Washington for that effort.
“I feel like our bond is stronger,” Washington said. “Which is very important during those pressure moments. And then you obviously feel like you have a better understanding of who each person is — not player — who each person is. I think, Year Two, absolutely I feel more aware. We’re still in attack mode. We’re still focused. That hasn’t changed.”
Maybe it’s not comfort. Washington is comfortable in any meeting room or around any players. Washington has a different word for it. Whatever he wants his level to be called, it’s working.
“I definitely feel more aware,” he said.
The turnaround of the linebackers was complete last year. It’s being taken to a new height this year. No more flipping the narrative.
The scary part? Al Washington still has even more time to get settled in with the Buckeyes.