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Football: Ohio State’s fluid linebacker position offers opportunity for inexperienced players

Ohio State redshirt freshman linebacker Tuf Borland (32) prepares to defend a USC possession in the third quarter of the 2017 Cotton Bowl against University of Southern California on Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Ohio State won 24-7. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Prior to the start of last season, there was not much question as to which linebackers would start. Playmaking Jerome Baker and a fully rehabbed Dante Booker lined up at outside linebacker and Chris Worley slid inside to replace the outgoing Raekwon McMillan.

One year later, everything that was once clear has become jumbled with no clear starter at any position. Worley appeared in 50 games and started the past two seasons before graduating, taking his versatility and 154 career tackles to the NFL. Baker decided to forgo his remaining year of eligibility and declare for the NFL draft after patrolling the second level of the defense the past two years, totalling 158 tackles, seven sacks and two interceptions.

In their place, a bevy of linebackers — Keandre Jones, Malik Harrison, Baron Browning, Pete Werner, Tuf Borland, Justin Hilliard and Booker — are engaged in a battle for playing time. Even freshmen Teradja Mitchell and Dallas Gant have a chance to break into the rotation early.

For the first time in years, the Buckeyes do not have a single linebacker returning who started every game the prior season — though Booker started six games before suffering an injury.

“You’ve got some good bodies. We’re not ready to say who is going to be in what position. It’s our job to get the best of them out there,” Meyer said. “The good thing is there is some opportunity, like you said, for someone to step up and go. That position, once again, they’re not perfect and they don’t have to be, but they’re trying. I kind of like that position right now.”

Meyer might say he likes the competition, but it’s hard to believe he enjoys the uncertainty, even if the season is more than five months from kicking off.

Ohio State senior linebacker Dante Booker (33) attempts to sack Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley in the second quarter in the game against Penn State on Oct. 28. Ohio State won 39-38. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

The situation became murkier Monday when Meyer announced Borland, who started nine games at middle linebacker last season, suffered an Achilles injury and would miss time. Of those fighting for one of the three starting linebacker spots, Borland has the most experience. Meyer even said Borland was locked into a starting role.

Despite the injury, Meyer said he’s not too worried about Borland missing an extended period of time, hinting at a quicker-than-usual recovery.

“He’s a little bit like J.T. Barrett,” Meyer said. “You say he’s out for a while, but he’s not going to be out for that long.”

Borland will likely remain a starter when he returns, but the absence gives the opportunity for a duo of intriguing linebackers to step up.

Browning and Hilliard have filled in for Borland during spring practice despite neither former five-star recruit having played meaningful defensive snaps with the Buckeyes. Both were ranked as top-three outside linebackers in their respective classes by the 247Sports composite rankings, but both their careers have taken different paths since they arrived in college.

A physical freak who Meyer called “as talented a linebacker as has ever walked through these doors,” Browning has the size and athleticism to play all three linebacker spots and pushed for playing time as a freshman after getting over early-career hurdles.

“[Browning] did not play well early in the season. Just was out of his comfort zone,” Meyer said. “By the end of the season he was really contributing in a lot of areas on special teams and should have played some defense, but he just didn’t earn that yet. But he’s got it all now.”

Ohio State sophomore linebacker Malik Harrison (39) attacks USC quarterback Sam Darnold in the second quarter of the 2017 Cotton Bowl against University of Southern California on Dec. 29 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. Ohio State won 24-7. Credit: Jack Westerheide | Photo Editor

Hilliard, on the other hand, has been kept off the field the majority of his first three seasons due to a multitude of injuries that put him behind his linebacker counterparts. A hard hitter and special-teams ace when healthy, he has suffered multiple bicep injuries.

However, Hilliard has a chance to see the field if he can take advantage of Borland’s absence and prove he has the ability to both stuff the run and succeed in pass coverage.

“He’s one of my favorite guys because he just goes as hard as he can,” Meyer said. “He’s a guy that’s made some mistakes on defense when he’s in there, and he’s just fighting through. The light is coming on, and he’s doing pretty good.”

On the outside, Jones and Harrison have worked with the starting unit. Werner and Browning also are pushing for playing time at outside linebacker. Booker will miss spring practice due to two shoulder surgeries, but is expected to compete for a starting role in the fall.

Harrison and Booker have the most experience of the group, but neither are locked into starting positions.

Booker started the opening games in 2016 and 2017, then dealt with season-ending injuries in both campaigns and will not be healthy until spring practice concludes. Harrison replaced Booker in the starting lineup for a couple games, but was moved out of the lineup later in the season.

Werner played mostly special teams last year, but Meyer raved about him in the fall and said he is having an “excellent spring.”

Ohio State will not have a problem filling three linebacker spots. The only question that remains is who will take advantage of the wide open situation and burst onto the scene.

Still, Meyer is confident in the linebacker coach Bill Davis-led unit.

“Linebackers? I’m not concerned,” Meyer said. “Coach Davis is doing a good job, and there are some talented cats.”

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