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Football: Ohio State linebackers continuing upward trajectory after rocky start to season

Ohio State redshirt junior linebacker Dante Booker intercepts a pass in the second quarter of the Buckeyes game against Rutgers on Sept. 30. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Ohio State’s linebackers — led by junior Jerome Baker, who had 3.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and two interceptions including one for a touchdown in 2016 — were expected to help ease the loss of three NFL-bound defensive backs who accounted for 15 interceptions last season.

But that did not happen in the first few weeks of the season. Linebackers Dante Booker, Chris Worley and Baker did not pick up a sack or interception through the first three weeks of the season. Last week, Meyer said the linebackers and the unit’s energy were average to begin the year.

In the last couple games, the unit has begun to make more game-changing, drive-ending plays. None was more apparent than when Baker scored the linebackers’ first touchdown of the year in the Buckeyes’ 62-14 victory against Maryland Saturday. It came off a fumble forced by defensive end Nick Bosa on the third play of Maryland’s opening drive.

“Out of nowhere, I just see Nick Bosa do what Nick Bosa do and seen the ball, scooped it up and ran as fast as I can [for a touchdown],” Baker said.

Baker later forced a fumble on a fourth-down try from Maryland that ended the Terrapins’ drive. Booker also made his presence felt early as he began Maryland’s first drive with a sack. Booker picked off the first pass of his career two weeks ago against Rutgers and also picked up his first sack of the season against the Scarlet Knights.

“We’ve just really been tightening down on the little stuff,” Booker said. “I know that’s easy to say, but I really feel like that’s what we’ve really been doing. Just tightening down the little things, trusting each other and just going out there and having fun with each other.”

Booker and redshirt senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis also each said increased competition in practices since the Week 2 loss to Oklahoma has led to additional improvement.

Though redshirt freshman Tuf Borland and freshman Baron Browning have filled in adequately in place of Worley, who has missed the last three games with a sprained foot, Worley’s likely re-entry into the starting lineup would give the Buckeyes added stability. Regardless, the linebackers believe they can make the rotation work regardless of who is healthy.

“We’re just locked in,” Baker said. “We were so worried about making mistakes and doing the wrong thing [earlier in the season]. We all told each other just go out there and play no matter who’s out there.”

Ohio State linebackers coach Bill Davis signals instructions to the team during the season opener at Indiana on Aug. 31. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The most notable difference between this year’s Ohio State linebackers and last year’s unit, which featured Baker, Booker and now-Miami Dolphins linebacker Raekwon McMillan, is the position coach. Luke Fickell, who played for the Buckeyes and worked as an assistant coach for Ohio State from 2002 to 2016, took the job as Cincinnati Bearcats head coach.

Former NFL coach Bill Davis, who was an analyst for Ohio State in 2016, was hired to replace Fickell as linebackers coach. Davis worked as a defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers (2005-06), Arizona Cardinals (2009-10) and Philadelphia Eagles (2013-15).

Last Wednesday, Meyer said Davis’ “last two weeks have been outstanding.” However, the transition to college position coach — a job Davis had never held — was rocky to begin.

“It was a little bit of a culture shock,” Meyer said. “This is closer to a high-school program than a pro program. We’re in the development where you have 17- and 18-year-olds that need to be developed with energy and hands on and sprinting A to B as coaches.”

Meyer explained he often chooses to avoid hiring lifelong NFL coaches because they are not as attuned to focusing on the day-to-day responsibilities of coaching teenagers. Meyer said though the linebackers began the year slowly, they excelled recently, including making plays on special teams.

“I think we’re really on a roll here and we’re going in the right direction,” Davis said last Wednesday. “We’ve got a little momentum going and we look to build on that.”

Given the linebackers’ performance against Maryland, the unit seems to be on the right track.

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