COLUMBUS — The Tuf Borland critics never came after his leadership.
An occasional lightning rod for his play from some outside of the Ohio State program, nobody anywhere took a shot at his credibility as a three-time captain. Whether he wasn’t athletic enough for skeptics or he struggled to defend quicker players in space, his teammates still looked to him as their leader; he’s only the second three-time captain in Ohio State history.
When Borland missed the Michigan State game this past season with COVID-19, the Buckeyes were just fine with Dallas Gant and Baron Browning filling in. But not having Borland in East Lansing was noticeable to his teammates. His presence was missed in the facility in the lead-up to the game, in the locker room and on the field.
“I don’t think they understand how good of an athlete [Borland] actually is and how much of a leader he really is,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said. “You talk about his knowledge of the game, I’ve never seen anything like it. I really haven’t. How he attacks the meeting room as well as on the field, they’re very similar. He just loves football.
“It’s just crazy that some people don’t see what he really puts in to be a great football player. We all see that. The way he approaches the game is like no other, and his leadership is the best in our unit, almost the best on our team. I wish people saw that more. And he’s really worked hard in the offseason to work on his body and his athleticism, and what you see out of him is going to be great.”
Borland was Ohio State’s rock. A member of the 2016 recruiting class, many of his classmates left for the NFL while he spent five seasons in Columbus. He made up for a lack of speed with instincts and toughness. Playing at inside linebacker, he was the constant in the position room when Ohio State had turnover in its program.
Even after tearing his Achilles in the spring of 2018, he played a full fall season. He adjusted to Al Washington’s coaching style and succeeded, piecing together his best year of production in 2020. Borland had five tackles and assisted on a tackle for loss against Penn State and was the defensive player of the game in the Sugar Bowl.
The former four-star outside linebacker had his struggles at times, most notably in the national-title game in January. Mismatched with Devonta Smith, the Alabama wide receiver only needed to sprint past Borland for an easy score in the College Football Playoff.
His lack of speed showed again at Ohio State’s Pro Day in late March, clocking 4.98 and 4.99 40-yard dash times. But for all his deficits, he’s a strong run stuffer and can wrap up well.
“[Borland] played his tail off,” Washington said last year. “He was instrumental to us and our success. Incredibly instrumental. He was one of the anchors. You talk about trust? I mean, I trust him — dare I say it — with my life. Out there on the field, I trust him tremendously. He played well, and he’s also a guy who will tell you there are things to work on, and he’s getting better.
“He’s an adult, he’s very mature — it’s hard to put into words. He meets like a coach, we watch film and he’s like an extension of a coach. It’s very comforting, because he’s also a guy who can lead and show young guys how to conduct their business because he’s been there.”
Tuf Borland was a good college football player. Ohio State loved him for his leadership, and his coaches and teammates held him in a high regard. Wherever he lands in the NFL, he won’t be a starter. But his ability to earn the respect from his peers can make him a career backup or special teams player.