COLUMBUS — Ohio State has problems at linebacker.
Luckily for Al Washington and the Buckeyes, too much talent and too much depth are good problems to have. Three starters return. A sixth-year contributor is back for a final season, too. And third-year playmakers are looking to bust out.
The Ohio State linebackers room is as deep as it has ever been.
“We’ve got a big group of talented linebackers,” do-it-all linebacker Baron 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.”
As part of Linebackers Week at Lettermen Row, we’re breaking down who is a lock for playing time, who may be in the mix to contribute and who can expect to watch from the sidelines.
Sure Ohio State starters
Pete Werner: The most versatile defensive player on the roster, Werner can play the run well, cover massive tight ends and slide back to a pseudo-safety role when called upon. Simply put, Werner can line up anywhere and excel for Ohio State, giving Al Washington plenty of flexibility in what he wants to do defensively. Werner will be a leader of the defense as a third-year starter and should be in the conversation to earn all-Big Ten honors during his final campaign for the Buckeyes.
Tuf Borland: The soon-to-be three-time captain for the Buckeyes has blocked out criticism to play at a high level for two seasons, so there’s not much concern he won’t be able to do it again. Borland is more than just a leader. He’s a linchpin of the defense that was one of the best in the country last season. If the Buckeyes are going to replicate that in 2020, Borland will have to be a huge part of the success. The criticism won’t die down, but neither will Borland’s level of play.
Baron Browning: Browning finally began to realize his five-star potential last season, doing so from a variety of spots on the field. He was a late-game pass-rusher against Penn State. He spied quarterbacks when he needed to. He proved to be a capable zone defender, and he’s always had the ability to stuff the run. Oh, and he can run sideline to sideline with his freakish athleticism. The next step is superstar-status for Browning. Can he take that step?
In the mix
Justin Hilliard: No player on the Ohio State roster has had worse luck with injuries than Hilliard, who has had numerous setbacks in his five seasons with the Buckeyes. But the former five-star recruit was able to stay on the field last season and make an impact, especially against the run-heavy opponents on the schedule. Serving as a fourth linebacker, Hilliard began to make plays and show promise that he can be a force this season, too. With a sixth season, Hilliard has something to prove in his final chance with the Buckeyes.
Teradja Mitchell: If there’s one breakout candidate in the linebackers room, it’s certainly Teradja Mitchell, who was expected to burst onto the scene last season. He’s had plenty of hype surrounding him since he arrived at Ohio State, and now, it’s time to turn the hype into productivity. He may not be a starter, but he’s set to have an expanded role in the Silver Bullets defense. His hard-hitting nature and instinctual athleticism allow him to be in the right places at the right time to make huge plays. Expect Mitchell to be a key for the Buckeyes defense this season.
K’Vaughan Pope: Mitchell isn’t the only rising star from Virginia at linebacker. Don’t forget about K’Vaughan Pope, who was a contributor on special teams in his first two seasons and has shown he can make big plays for the Ohio State defense, too. Pope had an interception in back-to-back games against Rutgers and Maryland a year ago, proving he has good hands and enough athleticism to make an impact. He has played in 23 games during his career, but largely on special teams. Is this finally when he’s able to have a larger role on the Buckeyes defense?
Dallas Gant: The final of the three talented junior linebackers, Gant is often overlooked, but he’s proven to be productive when he’s on the field. Gant has been a key contributor on special teams for the Buckeyes, and last season, he appeared in all 14 games. He finished the year with 21 tackles, three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks after having six tackles during his freshman campaign. It’ll be tough to get on the field, but Gant has proven he’s capable when out there.
Work to do
Mitchell Melton: A three-star linebacker from Maryland, Melton enrolled this summer. At 6-foot-3 and nearing 240 pounds, he has the frame to be a good Ohio State linebacker. He just hasn’t had much of a chance to show anything yet.
Craig Young: Young appeared in 10 games for the Buckeyes last season, most of his appearances coming on special teams. He had five tackles and will contribute on special teams again this upcoming season.
Tommy Eichenberg: Eichenberg appeared in just four games last season and took a redshirt during his first season on campus. He should be a solid special teams player this season, where he can take a step forward to prove he belongs on the field in 2021.