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Ohio State: How can Buckeyes get more out of linebackers in November?

Ohio State-Billy Davis-Ohio State football-Buckeyes
Ohio State linebackers coach Billy Davis is under pressure to deliver in November. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Question Of The Day

Ohio State: How can Buckeyes get more out of linebackers in November?

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 on Urban Meyer and 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 Billy Davis and the linebackers? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

The first step for Ohio State is admitting there’s a problem, and that has seemingly been the toughest one for the program to make. The issues at linebacker date all the way back to last season, popped up again starting with the opening game this year and clearly have not gone away despite all the repeated claims from the coaching staff that the Buckeyes are on the edge of a breakthrough. Even on Wednesday, defensive coordinator Greg Schiano appeared defiant that it’s not a schematic issue causing breakdowns for the Silver Bullets — including with the linebackers who have so frequently been deployed near the line of scrimmage.

“We’re giving up big plays still,” Schiano said. “But whether it’s after TCU or it’s middle of the season or after Saturday’s game … there is no one thing. It’s not the linebackers [playing] up, it’s not the safety play, all the things that can be talked about. It’s a combination of them all.

“There’s different times this year that we have walked up one linebacker to the line of scrimmage. We actually moved away from that last week. So if you study the game, watched the game last week, there were a few times in base defense they were walked up. Now third down, when you’re doing some exotic blitzes and things, we’re going to have them walked up. We always have.”

Mixed into all those explanations are a couple key details, and it’s important to consider them as the Buckeyes move forward. By and large, Ohio State appears unwilling to make any sort of significant change with the style of the defense — but Schiano also acknowledged that it was trying to move away from setting up the linebackers so close to the line of scrimmage. That’s one adjustment and an indication that it knows at least part of its scheme isn’t working, which watching a guy like Baron Browning react so much quicker and stronger from a more traditional depth should have already made clear.

Baron Browning-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning has flashed his ability lately for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Considering all the talent the Buckeyes have recruited, it really doesn’t seem like personnel changes are the answer. They might not even be necessary. Ohio State actually seemed to have some positive momentum with the rotation it was using early in the upset loss at Purdue. Malik Harrison, Tuf Borland and Pete Werner have all shown the ability to be productive Big Ten linebackers and are coming off a performance that included four tackles for loss before the late-game meltdown.

Would continuing to mix in more Browning help after his five-tackle outing at Purdue? Perhaps so. Could veterans like Justin Hilliard or Dante Booker provide some leadership or toughness? That might also be the case.

But Ohio State also had struggles last year with a surefire NFL linebacker in Jerome Baker and an experienced, savvy defender in Chris Worley. At some point, then, the look in the mirror during an off date like the Buckeyes had this week has to reveal breakdowns or miscommunication coming from the coaching staff.

There has never been a single second where Billy Davis could have been considered a home-run hire for Ohio State, and the drop-off from where Luke Fickell had that unit absolutely can’t be denied. But that doesn’t mean Davis doesn’t have a chance to get it turned around and help lead a November rally to another Big Ten title.

It just won’t happen unless Ohio State can admit there’s a problem and finally start doing more about it.

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Austin Ward

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.