COLUMBUS — Pete Werner would play anywhere Ohio State asked him to this season.
Based on his track record, there’s a good chance the veteran linebacker could successfully line up just about anywhere for the Buckeyes as well.
But after a breakout season where Werner emerged as one of the most reliable members of the Silver Bullets in the hybrid SAM/Bullet role, there was certainly part of the senior that didn’t think there would be any reason for him to move heading into his final season with the program.
“I was surprised, yeah,” Werner said before practice on Thursday. “Because I thought as well as I played in 2019 that I would have improved and made strides a little more going into next year. But they saw what I did in the box for a few plays last year and they really liked what I did. They saw that in the Clemson game, and I think with switching me and Baron [Browning] and showing different versatility, different options, I think they really like that.
“I think they thought it would favor our defense a little bit more having a disciplined guy in the box, but I was a little bit shocked knowing the way I played the previous year. But then again, the coaches know what they’re doing. That’s as much as I can say there, and I think we’re doing well with it so far.”
The Buckeyes are in no hurry to dive any deeper into their schematic or personnel adjustments as training camp heats up now that pads are finally back on at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. But Werner’s switch to the WILL spot with more interior responsibilities has been in the works dating back to the first day of practice in March before the pandemic shut those workouts down. And it’s clear that his blend of size and speed, experience and technical savvy were all factors as the coaching staff shuffled his spot.
Werner’s versatility is well known at this point after the Buckeyes used him to do everything from stuff the run to drop back into coverage as a safety at times last season. That’s still an asset Ohio State will tap into it, of course, but it also isn’t just changing the role of a senior this late in his career for no reason.
“Pete has been doing a really good job at the WILL position,” Washington said. “We do have him some other places based on the packages, but I think Pete’s skill set, he’s a physical player, he’s athletic, obviously, he’s very bright and passionate — I think he has a chance to make an impact.
“I think he can be an impact player at the WILL position. He’s made strides, he’s continuing to work his craft and we’re very excited about this spot where we’re playing him in at times.”
How much will Pete Werner be there? That remains to be seen, and the Buckeyes still have a long way to go before the opener on Oct. 24 against Nebraska.
But based on the way Ohio State used Malik Harrison in that spot last year and just how much production the third-round pick provided as the team’s leading tackler, it seems a safe bet that Werner moving is yet another indicator of just how important he is in the big picture for the Silver Bullets.
“I’m thinking the little things matter more at this position,” Werner said. “One wrong footwork, one wrong step and it results in you being behind the play. If your eyes aren’t in the right spot, then it’s going to be a big play. Having your eyes as disciplined as we are in the box, I think that’s going to work out very well.
“But it’s very tough switching positions. 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.”
That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a little surprising to Pete Werner at first. But anywhere on the field works for him, and the Buckeyes still won’t hesitate to use him all over it.
Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington and a handful of veterans from his position group met with the media on Thursday before practice. Hear from Washington, Pete Werner, Tuf Borland and Baron Browning in their comments below, and don’t forget that all press conferences can be streamed live on the Lettermen Row YouTube channel.