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If healthy, Tuf Borland can transform Ohio State’s linebacker unit — again

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Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland was a difference-maker last season. (Birm/Lettemen Row)

Question Of The Day

If healthy, Tuf Borland can transform Ohio State’s linebacker unit — again

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 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 today’s that focuses on the impact of Tuf Borland? Send it in right here — and check back daily for the answers.

With or without Tuf Borland, the Ohio State linebackers have the potential to be one of the stronger units on the team. But if Borland’s superhuman healing powers actually get him back on the field earlier in the season, that could be an X-factor that once again allows the Buckeyes to really thrive at the second level of the defense.

There is nothing guaranteed about Borland at this stage with training camp now just a couple weeks away. But in public appearances this summer, there has been no walking boot in sight in the aftermath of his Achilles injury this spring and people close to the program have hinted that he’s even resumed running. There’s a big difference between being ready to play middle linebacker and participating in some form of offseason conditioning, but certainly Borland seems to be ahead of schedule when initially it was feared he could miss the entire season.

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Tuf Borland could be back earlier than expected from a spring Achilles injury. (Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)

What does that mean for Ohio State? First of all, the impact he had after the Buckeyes finally realized that he should be starting in the heart of the defense last season was obvious down the stretch. The unit unquestionably was at its suffocating, stifling best with Borland on the field and Chris Worley and Jerome Baker on the outside. Those other two guys are gone, so there will be inexperience for the unit whether Borland is healthy or not. But having him back would clearly be a stabilizing force for the group.

If he’s not ready, Baron Browning and Justin Hilliard both appear more than capable of handling the responsibility. Few programs could lose a player of Borland’s caliber and then turn to a pair of former 5-star recruits to replace him. Browning was already drawing comparisons to Raekwon McMillan during practices late last season, and there’s never been any question about Hilliard’s athleticism if he could just catch a break after a string of unlucky injuries. Ohio State will have complete faith in either guy if needed to fill that critical void in the middle.

But should Borland get cleared at some point, that opens up a ton of possibilities for Ohio State. Both Browning and Hilliard have the ability to play on the outside. Malik Harrison is already poised for a breakout year in one of those spots, and Ohio State is high on the potential for Keandre Jones on the opposite side. But the Buckeyes might suddenly be able to start rotating more freely, whether to set up particular matchups or just to keep guys fresh while mixing and matching the personnel.

One way or another, there will be new faces involved at linebacker, and there’s no way to know for sure if they are prepared to play at a national-championship level until the season actually starts. But the pieces are all in place, and a bonus one might be back in time to take the unit to an even higher level.

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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.

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