During its run to an NBA Finals appearance in 2012, the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder held a roster whose players combine for 25 All-Star nods, eight scoring titles, two block titles and five regular season MVPs seven years later.
No future All-Stars from that roster remain. The Thunder hasn’t made the Finals since.
Linebackers coach Al Washington confirmed Wednesday that there are six Ohio State linebackers who could play at any time, and the position room is taking steps to avoid the issues that can plague teams like the Thunder.
“We have so much talent,” junior linebacker Pete Werner said. “So much talent in our room, in our defense, and throwing a guy out there, getting him tired, that’s not what you want to do.”
Humanity begets vanity, and it often seeps into sports. Egos can prevent talented squads from achieving their goals. With a mix of experienced upperclassmen and talented youth, the linebackers cannot allow their egos to grow too big as they share playing time.
With no more than three on the field at once in the base defense, and the new bullet position cutting that number to two in a number of situations, one would assume that there’s an ongoing battle among the six.
That’s not the case, according to the players and Washington. He addressed the issue when asked whether redshirt junior Tuf Borland, a multi-year starter at linebacker and a team captain, was holding the younger players off.
“We’re all together,” Washington said. “When people say that, I feel like they’re not living in our [world].”
Most upperclassmen seem to prefer that younger talent pushes for playing time.
“As older guys, that’s what we want to see,” Werner said. “We want to have their trust, that they’re gonna go in the game.”
The two biggest standouts from the younger group of linebackers — from what was said Wednesday by Werner and Washington — have been sophomores Teradja Mitchell and K’Vaughan Pope.
Mitchell gained experience in special teams as a freshman.
“Kickoff, punt, punt block, whatever they asked me to do,” Mitchell said. “This offseason [I’ve] continued to keep working hard, getting the playbook, learning the defense.”
Werner, who started throughout 2018, enjoys the tenacity Pope brings to the position room.
“He’s more engaged. You can see the look in his eye,” Werner said.
Werner is standing out in his own right. 2018 was his first year as a starter, but in his own words, “That’s not an excuse for the way some would say I played.”
He improved as the season went on, even earning a “champion” listing from former head coach Urban Meyer for a few games later in the year. Regardless, it’s driven him to have a better 2019 campaign. Washington has taken notice.
“Pete Werner, this camp has had probably one of the best camps I’ve seen a guy have,” Washington said. “You just tell him, ‘Hey P, next time do it like this.’ He’s like, ‘Got it.’ He’s like the Terminator.”
Junior Baron Browning, a former five-star recruit who started a few games during the past season, and senior Malik Harrison, who led the team in tackles, round out the rotation.
The linebackers as a whole drew their fair share of criticism for poor pursuit, tackling and block shedding in 2018. Washington provided a boost of energy, Mitchell said, and the depth of talent appears better on paper.
That said, on-field results are what matter most. Washington said he believes his players will deliver.
“All you can judge them on, for me, is how are they now compared to January?” Washington said. “Academically, they’re doing excellent. They show up on time. When they’re in the weightroom with coach Mick [Marotti], they work their tails off. In the meetings they take notes.”
How will all that talent see the field? Through the versatility and fluidity of Ohio State’s new-look defense, and the fact that few linebackers are solely designated at one of the three positions: sam, will or mike.
“We’re just mixing and matching everyone, trying everybody at new positions, because it’s a simplified defense,” Mitchell said.
If they continue to tuck their egos aside, it appears the linebackers have dedicated the necessary work to a system that should help them succeed.