When outside linebackers Jerome Baker and Dante Booker were announced as inactive Saturday morning, just before kickoff of Ohio State’s game against Michigan State, the only known replacement on the outside was sophomore Malik Harrison.
Beyond that, speculation emerged as to how the rest of the lineup would look.
As it turned out, redshirt senior linebacker Chris Worley shifted outside from middle linebacker and redshirt freshman Tuf Borland started in the middle, where he had filled in earlier in the year when Worley was out with a foot injury.
Moving outside was not a challenge for Worley, however. The linebacker had previously played outside during the 2016 season, so shifting back was hardly a daunting task.
“I’m pretty comfortable at all the linebackers. I know them all inside-out,” Worley said Tuesday. “The thing about last week was the game plan was pretty strengthened a little bit and everything was just focused on do your job and go out there and win. That’s what we were based on. We got back to that this past week. And not just me, everyone looked better last week.”
While everyone looked comfortable at their respective positions, Worley, in particular, appeared to settle into his old spot. Though he finished with only five total tackles, including one sack, Worley overall performed well in the role of outside linebacker while opening up the middle for Borland, who seems the more natural fit at the position.
Worley said it took time to re-adjust to his old position, but eventually got his feet back under him. The same could be said for the entire linebacking group that came out for the first drive. Michigan State’s second play of the drive was a 20-yard rush, and three plays later, quarterback Brian Lewerke was able to scramble for a 16-yard gain.
“Actually, early on, I was looking in the right places, but I was kind of still figuring it out,” Worley said. “It was different playing in the game and really know practice, you know, everything is scripted. In the game, you don’t know where they’re coming at. As the game started going along, it just started to flow better.”
But as the game wore on, Harrison, Borland and Worley found their rhythm and turned in one of the best performances from the linebacker unit this season, despite missing two of its three starters. The unit’s effort brought about questions as to whether the same trio would start Saturday against Illinois, or at the least, would Worley remain outside.
Worley insists he is just as happy and just as comfortable playing all three linebacker positions — strong-side, weak-side and middle.
“I prefer to play all three and rotate,” Worley said. “Even though I would be in a rhythm that would make some other linebackers probably not be in a good rhythm. It’s tough to play that way, especially in college. You see a lot of linebackers doing it in the league and change from different packages, but it’s kinda tough to do it at college because you gotta make sure everyone stays in a rhythm.”
Knowing Harrison and Borland are capable of stepping up and providing depth to Baker and Booker, assuming the two are healthy, means that Worley could shift around to other positions when one of the other starters needed to take a break and rest.
Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said having a guy like Worley who is not only capable, but willing to play all three linebacker spots is invaluable to the team.
“When you have an experienced guy that can play all three positions, it not only gives you flexibility how to start the game, but within the game more flexibility,” Schiano said. “And it’s hard because it’s not like the positions are identical in any way. But he’s a bright football player and he’s an experienced football player, so we’re fortunate.”
The health of the linebackers remains in question. Though Baker has been cleared to play Saturday against Illinois, Booker was still listed as questionable by head coach Urban Meyer on the Big Ten coaches teleconference Tuesday.
Harrison was listed as the co-starter with Booker in the depth chart. But with Baker making his return, the team will at least be making progress towards returning a fully healthy unit.
Harrison is still learning the position and would be asked to make only his second start while Baker is just coming off an injury. Having Worley available to shift outside to spell Harrison or Baker from time to time could help alleviate some pressure on Harrison or Baker, in his first game back from his injury.
If he’s called on to go and spell Harrison or Baker outside, Worley said he will be ready.
“I’m just here to help the team anyway I can,” Worley said. “Whatever my coaches tell me to do, that’s what I’ll do. I’ve graded out basically a champion every week. Inside, outside, only thing I can do is go out there and play my best.”