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Football: Big things expected from Ohio State linebacker group that has come up small

Ohio State then-redshirt sophomore linebacker Tuf Borland (32) takes down Maryland then-redshirt freshman running back Anthony McFarland (5) in the first quarter of the game against Maryland on Nov. 17. Ohio State won 52-51. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Multimedia Editor

Every set of All-Big Ten defensive teams from 1989 to 2016 had something in common:

They each featured at least one Ohio State linebacker.

Billy Davis’ first season as Ohio State’s linebacker coach saw the first year in 29 that a Buckeye linebacker was not selected for an All-Big Ten team. The same was true of his second season, as the much maligned defense — and oftentimes the linebackers specifically — allowed the most yards per game (403.4) in program history.

First year co-defensive coordinator Greg Mattison now has his former Michigan coaching partner Al Washington at the helm of the linebacker room, and they’re eager to prove that the train has not jumped the tracks just yet.

“I watch these players. There’s some culture here now,” Mattison said. “You don’t work as hard as you’ve worked in winter conditioning; you don’t work as hard as you’ve worked in spring football if there’s not culture. It’s not broken. These players want to be great.”

Despite having no linebacker selected to the first, second, or third team All-Big Ten this past season, Ohio State returns three starters in junior Pete Werner, redshirt junior Tuf Borland and senior Malik Harrison. All three were named honorable mention All-Big Ten by either Big Ten coaches or media.

Harrison, the standout linebacker for much of the season, led the Buckeyes with 81 tackles, 8.5 of which were for lost yardage.

Borland began this past season recovering from an Achilles tendon injury, and missed some time this spring with a knee issue that could allow sophomore linebacker Teradja Mitchell and junior Baron Browning to gain ground on him for playing time in the middle.

Mattison, who served as the Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker coach in 2008, said he has worked with the strong outside linebacker group — the Sam position — since coming to Ohio State.

“I think Pete Werner had a really, really good spring and I think he’s gonna be a heck of a football player,” Mattison said.

Mattison added that he looks at junior safeties Brendon White and Jahsen Wint as playing similarly to a Sam linebacker this season. This is due to the Buckeyes’ implementation of the bullet position that will look to utilize versatile athleticism for a hybrid position on the outside.

Despite the addition of four new defensive coaches and the integration of a new position that could cut into the minutes of Sam linebackers like Werner, Mattison reiterated that a 13-1 team a season ago is not looking to reinvent the wheel.

“It’s not like you’re coming in and you go, ‘Wow, we’ve gotta fix this,’” Mattison said. “Not in my opinion. I think this group of coaches — and these players — we’re excited about. Let’s see how good we can be this next year. That’s the bottom line. Let’s be the best we can be, and that’s our goal.”

With an offensive specialist in Ryan Day taking over head coaching responsibilities after a tumultuous year on defense, the question becomes how the defense improves heading into the future.

Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class, No. 1 in the Big Ten according to 247Sports, features just one defensive prospect in four-star safety Lejond Cavazos.

However, Day said recruiting is a top priority all June, and the coaching staff will have a better handle on the situation come the end of the month.

Coming in as a true freshman linebacker for Ohio State is Cade Stover, the No. 4 recruit in Ohio, whose 6-foot-5 frame Mattison said he watched on the basketball court at Lexington High School. Mattison had only two words to describe his anticipation for the addition of Stover: “Can’t wait.”

Before the next wave of Buckeye linebackers can take the field at Ohio Stadium, there are still improvements to be made with the returning players.

Mattison said talented players can often be slowed down when overloaded with X’s and O’s. He also said the coaching staff has been preaching fundamentals and trying to simplify the game so that the defense can play freely and fast.

With 11 scholarship linebackers for the upcoming season, Day said the outside criticism has only enhanced the intensity of competition at the position.

“They’re all battling and we’ve got a lot of players there. We’ve got some good depth with a lot of experience,” Day said. “They’re a hungry group now. They’ve read things, they’re ready to go and they’re hungry, which is fun to be around. I mean there’s not a lot of smiles on their faces right now, which you like as a coach.”

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