COLUMBUS — Technically, the Ohio State starters that have been around for seemingly forever didn’t have to leave yet.
But those four senior linebackers were ready to move on, and the next wave that has been patiently waiting for a shot probably breathed a sigh of relief.
Yes, those veterans are going to be missed, and there are big shoes to fill. But the Buckeyes also have a handful of guys who chose to be patient, sticking around for a moment just like this spring when the chance to emerge finally, truly arrived.
Of course, it also helps that the position coach decided to stay with the program. And now Al Washington is heading into a fascinating camp as his unit faces a complete reload at the top of the depth chart.
“Coach Washington has been amazing,” three-time Ohio State captain Tuf Borland said last season. “He deserves a lot of credit in what we’ve done. Day in, day out he’s always there for us. Just the way he approaches his business every day, with the energy, the passion — it’s truly contagious.
“I think it just shows in how we’ve kind of taken off in this last season. I give him a lot of credit.”
Borland actually had the option to return once again thanks to the free year of eligibility granted by the NCAA during the COVID-19 campaign season, just as Baron Browning, Pete Werner and Justin Hilliard all did. But those guys have given just about everything they possibly could to Ohio State — and now they are giving the program a chance to develop the group that will replace them.
The Buckeyes are losing a ton of experience, and there might not be a position on the roster that needs a normal, competitive spring camp more than the linebackers. As the Lettermen Row Spring Forecast series continues, it’s time to take a closer look at what’s in store for the Silver Bullets.
The Stakes: Ohio State must completely rebuild starting lineup
Ohio State still has veteran linebackers in the program. But when it comes to on-field experience, productivity and championship pedigree, it’s almost hard to fathom exactly how much the Buckeyes are losing at linebacker with their top four seniors all heading to the next level. The leadership of Tuf Borland, the dynamic playmaking of Baron Browning, the versatility of Pete Werner and the clutch performances from Justin Hilliard are just scratching the surface of what those guys gave to the Buckeyes. That’s an awful lot to have to replace at once.
The task could have been even taller if Al Washington had taken a lucrative offer to leave for Tennessee in the offseason, but his loyalty to the Buckeyes and the players he’s been recruiting and developing for the last two years won out in the end. Considering how much rebuilding is necessary for the Buckeyes at linebacker, it was significant that it didn’t also include finding somebody new to organize the project.
The Candidates: New group of seniors ready to lead Buckeyes
There was a sense of deja vu over the last couple years at this time for Ohio State thanks to the staying power of those veteran linebackers, which had a trickle-down effect of leaving the same names as potential breakout stars for multiple camps. By now that means that even without having been starters, Teradja Mitchell, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant might be the most well-known backup linebackers in the country. Frankly, it’s pretty remarkable that all three of them had the patience, selfless work ethic and belief in the program to stick around to become seniors for the Buckeyes in an era where the transfer portal is filling up at a mind-numbing rate. Now it’s their turn to lead the way, and the pressure is squarely on them to help keep Ohio State rolling at a championship level.
As always, there are intriguing options filling up behind the upperclassmen. This spring, though, there’s likely going to be more of a blank slate since there’s practically no starting experience returning for the unit. Tommy Eichenberg has drawn positive reviews and could be a hard-hitting presence on the inside. Craig Young is bursting with athleticism and has positional flexibility. Both Mitchell Melton and Cody Simon showed encouraging signs during their unusual freshman seasons with the program as well. There is no shortage of talent for Al Washington to work with, and he’ll have to leave camp with a good idea how to use it best.
The Forecast: Rising talent will expand Ohio State rotation
There’s nothing bold about predicting a group of seniors will claim the starting jobs at linebacker, especially when they are as talented as these Buckeyes. Even without having played in a full-time role yet, Mitchell, Pope and Gant all have seen snaps on both defense and special teams while contributing to the run of Big Ten titles — and that will give them an edge heading into camp.
But there will be strong cases made by younger players over the next month or so, and former four-star Cody Simon looks like a prime candidate to jump in the mix and give the Buckeyes a jolt at linebacker. The Buckeyes will probably spend camp rotating through six guys to experiment with the formula and see what personnel grouping provides a spark. One way or another, Simon could find himself in the equation for Ohio State soon.