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Improvement at linebacker critical for Ohio State turnaround on defense

Al Washington-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington is in charge of rebuilding a unit that has struggled. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Question Of The Day

Improvement at linebacker critical for Ohio State turnaround on defense

The speculation, debate and conversations about Ohio State never end, and Lettermen Row is always ready to dive into the discussions. All week long, senior writer Austin Ward will field topics about the Buckeyes submitted by readers and break down anything that’s on the minds of the Best Damn Fans in the Land. Have a question that needs to be tackled, like the one today about Al Washington leading a turnaround as part of Linebacker Week? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

The true strength of the Ohio State defense isn’t up for debate. That responsibility will fall on the Rushmen up front, and the defensive line is perhaps loaded with more talent, versatility and experience than Larry Johnson has ever had to work with in his career.

The group with the most untapped potential seems pretty clear as well. The Buckeyes have recruited defensive backs at a higher level than any program in the country. And after a down season following the departure of famed position coach Kerry Coombs, the secondary is primed for a massive bounce-back effort with at least six potential stars in the rotation under new assistant Jeff Hafley.

But if Ohio State is going to truly revitalize the Silver Bullets after the worst statistical season in school history, the linebackers are going to have to play a pivotal role. So, that unit might not be the primary muscle or the group with the most future NFL Draft picks, but it’s the one that will come into the season with the most pressure to produce improvement.

And there are plenty of reasons to expect that the Buckeyes will deliver.

Malik Harrison-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Malik Harrison is looking to lead a resurgence on defense. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

For starters, the new defensive staff and position coach Al Washington already seem to be having more success communicating their plans to the linebackers, which should put them in better position to perform. Greg Schiano and Billy Davis have both coached football for a long time and know what they’re doing. But whether it was an inability to get across their message, a game plan that lacked flexibility or drills on the practice field that left some insiders shaking their heads, it’s undeniable that what the Buckeyes were doing last season didn’t work.

So, Step One was a change in staff. From there, Washington is inheriting a tremendous amount of talent that he should be able to mold into a unit that can get back to the program’s historically high standards at linebacker.

Malik Harrison is a freakish athlete. Tuf Borland is a proven veteran and captain. Pete Werner has a year of steady, under-appreciated work under his belt. And Teradja Mitchell, Baron Browning and Dallas Gant are leading a charge from behind to bolster the depth and maybe shake up the lineup.

It might be unfair to expect instant results from a first-year coach. But in Washington’s case, there’s virtually no reason that his group shouldn’t be better than the last couple seasons. The real question is just how much more he can squeeze out of the Buckeyes after working with them for just one spring session and one training camp in August.

That can’t really be answered in June. But make no mistake: If Ohio State is going to be dominant on defense again, the linebackers must play a critical role in the turnaround.

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IMO we need new faces at linebacker this year. Harrison should be alright but Borland and Werner needs to step it up or step back.

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Austin Ward is Lettermen Row's senior writer covering Ohio State football and basketball. The award-winning journalist has covered the Buckeyes since 2012, spending five of those seasons working for ESPN after previous stints at the Casper Star-Tribune and Knoxville News Sentinel.

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