COLUMBUS — Tuf Borland knows what Ohio State has inside its linebacker room.
The three-time captain for the three-time defending Big Ten champs has seen enough over the course of a small spring practice, a shutdown, the return to campus and fall camp so far to make an assessment of his unit.
To no surprise, it’s strong.
“All those guys have done an unbelievable job,” Borland said on a Zoom call with reporters on Thursday. “Top to bottom, the whole room has done an unbelievable job this offseason. It’s been a little bit unique, but you can tell guys are putting in a lot of time. The work shows.”
Ohio State might have the deepest linebacker unit in the country. Top to bottom, the Buckeyes have talent, experience and versatility. The hard part for Al Washington and the coaching staff is figuring out how to manage the embarrassment of riches in the room.
It’s not an easy task.
“You have to give a player a role, a focus and give them the opportunity to exercise that,” Washington said. “We are a deep group, but we are going to need, this year in particular, more than just three or four. Throughout the year, we have to develop because you never know what could happen with the situation that we’re in. Everybody has a role. Everybody’s engaged. I feel like this time period has really brought us closer. Everybody feels like they matter. Everybody has an impact in their own way.
“Our mentality going into the spring to now really hasn’t changed much. Our goal is just to get better every day and, when your number is called, get ready to play.”
The linebackers met with the media Thursday before the Buckeyes second padded practice of the fall. With just three weeks until kickoff of the season, they provided an update on their progress. Lettermen Row is breaking down What We Learned from the talent inside the room.
Baron Browning, Pete Werner swapping spots
The versatility in the linebacker room starts at the top. Pete Werner and Baron Browning swapped positions, giving the Buckeyes a better opportunity to do more things in more looks defensively. But just because Browning and Werner switched spots in the base defense doesn’t mean they can’t swap again if need be.
Both players know both positions. It helps create more versatility across the board.
“It’s very tough switching positions, Werner said. “The only thing that helped me out a bunch is being an older guy and knowing every position on the defense. I’d like to say I could play any position on the defense just because all of us know the defense so well, and I think that helps us be as good as we are on the defensive side of the ball knowing everybody’s spot. The transition is tough, but I think we’re all capable of doing it.”
For Browning, the move to the outside gives him more freedom to make the athletic plays he has always been capable of. In a new spot, he could be in for a massive season.
“Baron’s athleticism, he can play inside,” Washington said. “He can play outside. He can do a lot of different things.”
Linebacker versatility is key for matchups
The linebacker unit is one of the deepest on the Ohio State roster, and it might be one of the deepest and most talented units in the country. Seven returning contributors, a three-time captain, two other starters, a sixth-year senior and more-than-capable juniors highlight the room. Plenty of talented players are waiting for the logjam at the top to clear. Finding roles for everyone is tough.
That’s why the Buckeyes are going to use their depth and versatility to their advantage. They’re going to play linebackers based on matchups.
“We do have that depth,” Washington said. “And we do have guys with a variety of different skillsets. We can match up better. We can give guys roles and we can tame guys in the sense of, guys aren’t getting worn down, all that while playing great defense. That’s exactly what we would like to do.”
Ohio State has the ability to rotate talent on and off the field while switching roles for matchups. It can play multiple linebackers at multiple spots. The possible combination of linebackers on the field at a time are endless.
“It’s just going to put guys in different roles,” Baron Browning said. “Like for Pete going from SAM to WILL, me going from MIKE to SAM, I feel like it helps us show our versatility, that we are more than one-dimensional linebackers.”
Trio of juniors still ready for opportunity
Behind the trio of returning starters are three junior linebackers who have been stuck in backup roles for three years. That can be frustrating for all three of them, even when they are getting playing time.
They are all talented enough to start. But the depth chart is loaded.
“Dallas Gant is a skilled inside backer,” Washington said. “He has position flexibility. He can play [middle] and [outside] for us. His value for us is obviously to contribute meaningful minutes, but to help us in different types of ways. Teradja Mitchell is an explosive player. We’ve all seen that. A very passionate player. So those types of guys, we can find ways to get them closer to the ball and attack the football and get them to play to their strengths. K’Vaughan Pope is very athletic, very athletic in space. Very instinctive. There’s ways to utilize him.
“I don’t want to get too much into the scheme, but just knowing their attributes, we have to do a good job of putting them in position to play to their strengths. That’s how we envision utilizing them this season.”
None of them have wavered in their commitment to getting better and becoming contributors, no matter the role, starting or not.
“The thing about those guys, what makes them special is they’re willing to sit back and learn from some of the older guys,” Borland said. “We had the opportunity to do that as well, to learn from the older guys who were here when we were young. You can’t say enough good things about those guys.”
All three will see the field this year. And their roles may be expanded as the season goes along.
Young Buckeyes gaining traction in crowded room
Al Washington was known as a good recruiter when he got to Ohio State from Michigan last offseason. And he proved that with the addition of Cody Simon and Mitchell Melton in the 2020 class. Washington has only seen the two freshmen for two days in pads, but what he’s seen out of them is positive.
The future of the linebacker room is bright.
“The freshmen coming in, I’m really excited about Cody Simon and Mitchell Melton,” Washington said. “Those kids are going to be special players. They’re both smart. They’re both tough, and they both love football. Very excited about the youth in the program. Those young guys, they just have to have an opportunity to get out there and play. When they get out there, they have to make the impact they know they want to make. Everything leading up to that, they’ve shown they’re capable, so I’m excited.”
Washington also singled out Craig Young and Tommy Eichenberg, two young players who have not contributed yet but could if called upon. The unit is deep, even down to the freshmen and second-year Buckeyes.