Tuf Borland-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland is back for another season as a captain for the Buckeyes. (Sammy Silverman/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

Five Questions as Buckeyes find best use for deep, versatile linebackers

COLUMBUS — There is no such thing as having too many talented linebackers at Ohio State.

Sure, it gets a little complicated to figure out exactly how to use them all, and Al Washington can certainly relate to the frustration some future stars might feel while waiting for their turn. His job also isn’t getting any easier as the schedule shrinks and the opportunities for playing time get squeezed even more.

But that’s all just part of the gig for Washington as he heads into his second season leading the unit for the Buckeyes. And there’s no question that he’s better off figuring out what to do with extra pieces instead of trying to make do with one that doesn’t have enough.

“I played football,” Washington said. “Everybody wants to play. I think we’ve got to do a really good job of keeping them engaged. Fortunately last year, all of those guys played, and it wasn’t like they played in the fourth quarter when the game was over. They played in some critical moments. So I think that piece of it helps.

“But it’s a daily deal. It’s a culture deal. And it’s a brotherhood deal.”

That unit proved to be plenty strong for the Buckeyes a year ago, and even with Malik Harrison moving on to the NFL, there’s a chance that group could be even better this season with so many returning veterans in the mix. How will the Buckeyes use all of those experienced, productive tacklers? That’s just one key topic for Ohio State as Lettermen Row kicks off Linebackers Week with Five Questions.

Al Washington-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington has plenty of options to work with this season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

How many Buckeyes will rotate at linebacker?

The rest of the defense has already shown just how effective a rotation can be with both the line and the secondary spreading around snaps in recent years. The Buckeyes have experimented with that approach at times at linebacker with success, and this looks look a season where it could comfortably and confidently find roles for seven different guys — at least.

There’s no question that Tuf Borland and Pete Werner will remain fixtures as the multi-year starters return for another season, and a healthy Baron Browning has shown he can be one of the best playmakers for the defense as a whole. But there are strong pushes coming from Teradja Mitchell, Justin Hilliard, K’Vaughan Pope and Dallas Gant to see action, and Ohio State will likely benefit from finding creative ways to use them all. How exactly will that all look? Missing spring camp has added a bit of uncertainty there, but Ohio State should still have enough time to sort through it all when mandatory team activities resume.

Will the Teradja Mitchell breakout happen this year?

A couple nagging injuries kept the Teradja Mitchell freight train off the tracks last season after he seemed destined to take the next step to stardom following an impressive spring camp and clear physical development heading into training camp. There is no harder hitter on the roster, and his athleticism always draws rave reviews anytime he has a chance to publicly show off what he can bring to the Buckeyes at linebacker.

So, is this the season that potential is finally unleashed? The expected rotation on the inside means Mitchell probably won’t become a household name around the country since his snaps and statistics aren’t likely to be as expansive as they might be at pretty much any other program. Mitchell has shown both patience and loyalty to the Buckeyes so far, and that surely won’t change at this point in his career. But that’s also why Ohio State must find a way to get him on the field more often to let him build up a head of steam.

Baron Browning-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State linebacker Baron Browning took a step forward last season. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Where is Baron Browning most effective for Ohio State?

Essentially the entire career of Baron Browning has been a long debate about where he should play, where he feels most comfortable and where he can most consistently help the Buckeyes. That nearly came to a premature conclusion when the dynamic defender flirted with the idea of declaring for the NFL Draft after last season, but instead he recognized how one more year of development and production could boost his stock.

So, the conversation continues. And after seeing him working on pass-rush moves with Larry Johnson at times last season and then wreaking havoc with some opportunities to come off the edge, that’s a wrinkle that adds some new flavor to the worn-out inside or outside speculation that has always swirled around him. Browning is still gifted enough to play anywhere for the Buckeyes. In the end, maybe that just means he still doesn’t need a defined position for Ohio State.

Could Pete Werner become first-round NFL Draft pick?

The secret MVP of the Ohio State defense can play anywhere from deep safety to edge rusher and can do anything from stuffing the run to lining up in man-to-man pass coverage. Just about anything the Buckeyes can dream up for Pete Werner, he can do — and perform it at a high level.

The spotlight outside the program rarely focuses much on Werner, but there’s no dispute whatsoever that inside the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, he’s showered with appreciation for everything he brings to the table. There were growing pains earlier in his career as he settled into his role at linebacker, though that’s not uncommon and can also be attributed to a lack of help from the previous coaching staff. But Werner is thriving for the Buckeyes now, and his athleticism and versatility will send his draft stock skyrocketing this season.

Will Tuf Borland be three-time captain for Ohio State?

OK, the answer here is obvious. Tuf Borland is entrenched as a leader for the Buckeyes, and he only strengthened his bond with the program with some summertime leadership helping organize a peaceful protest as part of the Black Lives Matter movement last month. Borland is a lock to make more history as a three-time captain, and it’s deserved.

Beyond that, he’s also still going to be in the starting lineup as a guy the coaching staff trusts whole-heartedly. Memories of watching him play at less than full speed two years ago in the rushed return from an Achilles injury still seem to influence outside criticism of Borland. But he delivered six champion-graded performances for the Buckeyes last season and can only keep getting better as that injury gets farther in the rear-view mirror. Borland is a foundational piece for the Buckeyes on and off the field, and that’s not going to change.

Ohio State: Deep, versatile linebackers give Buckeyes plenty of options
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