COLUMBUS — K’Vaughan Pope only had five tackles in the first eight games of the season for Ohio State.
But in the two that followed, Pope made his impact on the Buckeyes second-string defense known.
Pope picked off passes in back-to-back blowout wins over Maryland and Rutgers, the two lowly basement dwellers of the Big Ten East Division who had no shot at beating Ohio State. The games were already decided when the turnovers occurred. They didn’t have an impact on the game.
But two interceptions in two games can do wonders for a reserve defender’s confidence, especially when he will attempt to break out next season.
“It humbled me,” Pope said. “It was a good experience. I had fun while doing it.”
Before those plays, Pope was getting playing time as the Buckeyes were slashing through their schedule with blowout after blowout. He had three tackles in the win over Northwestern, when the reserves were able to play nearly the entire second half.
But once the success came in early November, the game slowed down for Pope.
“It’s way faster than what I thought it would be,” Pope said. “But everything slows down once you know what to do, and once you get the grasp of the game.”
That grasp of the game can be of big help to Pope. Al Washington’s linebacker room won’t see much turnover from last season into next. The only departure is Malik Harrison. Tuf Borland and Pete Werner are back for another year. Baron Browning will return as a dynamic playmaker. Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant will join Pope in pushing for playing time.
Competition is a good thing, and the Buckeyes certainly have it. Most of the time, three players will be on the field at once, and three key contributors from last season will return.
“The good news is a lot of our guys played,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “In those first 11 games, those guys were all playing in the second half. So there’s a lot of experience there. And at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to our leadership and how our guys lead and how hungry and accountable our guys are.”
The culture of the room appears healthy on the surface. Mitchell, Gant and Pope all mentioned the three starters as good mentors for younger players, something that doesn’t always happen.
“I look up to most of them,” Pope said. “Tuf, Baron, Malik, how they operate in the meeting room and how they go about their way on the practice field. It’s had a big impact on me with how they go about their business.”
The Silver Bullets will likely go about their business next year. Although they’ll replace a lot in the secondary, along with arguably the country’s best player in Chase Young, the Buckeyes figure to reload and make another run at the College Football Playoff next season.
Linebackers will play a big part in that, and Pope is going to battle for one of those spots. The huge confidence boost late in the season last year, two interceptions, can go a long way in the start of that process.
“I kind of still doubt myself every now and then,” Pope said. “But just knowing what to do [helps me].”