Ohio State, ranked No. 2 in the NCAA with a 7-0 record and two wins over previously ranked opponents, has given up 21 plays of 30 or more yards in its first seven games of the season.
Two plays broke the record for the longest play allowed in Ohio State history, allowing a 93-yard pass once against TCU and the other two weeks later against Penn State.
Often times, it is the linebackers who are blamed for these big plays, and redshirt junior linebacker Justin Hilliard knows that.
“Everyone talks about the linebackers right now,” Hilliard said. “In the last three weeks, this is the most we’ve watched film, this is the most we’ve worked in practice.”
The Ohio State linebacker room is composed of a handful of players, many of which have gotten a sizable amount of time on the field this season.
Seven linebackers for the Buckeyes have eight total tackles or more, and three of the top four tacklers on the team, sophomore Pete Werner, junior Malik Harrison and redshirt sophomore Tuf Borland, are at the linebacker position.
With only one senior at the position, redshirt senior Dante Booker, linebackers coach Bill Davis said in-game reps are the most important thing in improving the group.
“When young guys get on the field for the first time and when you’re playing at Ohio State, in front of crowd we play, in front of the television times that we play and the audiences, these young men are finding themselves and really what happens is they’re always questioning ‘Do I belong? Do I belong?,” Davis said. “At some point, they make enough plays and they have enough reps where they say, ‘You know what, I do belong,’ and then you see a confidence about them.”
Davis said the defense now is “right at that edge” of getting to that confidence, and some of the guys are already “popping with the confidence.”
Even with the strong tackling numbers of Werner, Harrison and Borland, the recent defensive output for the Buckeyes has raised questions about that confidence.
Ohio State watched redshirt senior quarterback Trace McSorley break the program record with 175 rushing yards and 461 yards of total offense. Two weeks later, Minnesota relentlessly used slants to break open the middle of the defense, while giving up 157 yards to redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim.
Despite those numbers, Davis said he sees the linebacker room turning a corner.
“It’s as frustrating for the players, the coaches and the fans equal, it really is, we are trying hard to stop those little breakdowns,” Davis said. “We feel, as a group, very confident that that’s about to be eliminated, that we’re at a place, and the guys are mature and the reps are high enough now that we’re really excited about the second half of the season defensively.”
There have been injuries to various Ohio State linebackers throughout the season, with Borland and Hilliard coming off previous injuries heading into the year, and Harrison missing the previous matchup against the Golden Gophers amid concussion protocol. But Hilliard said injuries don’t affect the group much
Hilliard said he thinks a lot of the problems on the defense have been from missed assignments.
“Even when guys are hurt, they’re still always around us,” Hilliard said. “We’re always working together and everyone has that mindset to prepare as a starter, and you’ve got to be ready when your time comes.”
Hilliard and Davis both said they see the linebackers ready to turn into a group that can help Ohio State prepare for a championship run.
Both also have personal goals, with Davis’ being to always improve as a coach.
“I’m always trying to improve and get better, I think I’m a better coach this year than I was last year, I’ll say that every year of my career no matter where I’m at,” Davis said.
For Hilliard, it’s being more than the player who suffered major injuries in his first two seasons at Ohio State.
“I don’t want to be known as the guy who got injured but I mean that is my story,” Hilliard said. “I wouldn’t say it bothers me but I don’t want to be known as that.”