“Creativity” was the primary word used by Ohio State linebackers coach Al Washington Wednesday to describe how the coaching staff will handle his position room.
Seven linebackers — all former four- and five-star recruits, all with at least two years of experience under their respective belts, all of whom have seen meaningful snaps in the past for the Buckeyes — will be vying for time on the depth chart in 2020.
Ohio State uses a defense that plays a maximum of three linebackers at a time, with the exception of an occasional 4-4 look against traditionalist Big Ten foes, such as Wisconsin, that feature run-heavy offenses.
Finding playing time for seven linebackers in the Ohio State defense will require ingenuity from its coaching staff, and positional flexibility from its players.
“The way I look at it, the first two teams, those are all [starters],” Washington said. “We’ve gotta feel confident. We have to do a really good job of trying to create roles, think outside, maybe, the conventional defense, and put guys in roles so that they can do what they do best.”
Leading tackler Malik Harrison is the lone departure for Ohio State from the position room. Three starters return: redshirt senior Tuf Borland and seniors Baron Browning and Pete Werner.
Borland and Browning split time at middle linebacker in 2019, but Browning has been working at outside linebacker since the start of spring practice Monday. His skillset could be better suited to the edge, Washington said.
Browning finished with 43 tackles –– 11 for loss –– and five sacks in 2019.
“He has a knack for rushing that’s well documented,” Washington said. “He has a knack to play in the box as a backer. We want to give him a chance to grow his skill set and experience as much as he can.”
Browning was spotted working with the defensive ends during open practice time; what exactly that entails come fall, the Texas native said fans and media will have to wait and see.
However, he’s enjoying the move to outside linebacker.
“I feel like that’s more my natural position I played in high school,” Browning said. “So it’s something I feel comfortable doing and I’m excited for it.”
Werner’s success at the strong-side linebacker position in 2019 mostly erased the need for the new “bullet” position, a hybrid between safety and linebacker meant to both support the run and defend the pass against spread offenses, as he proved able to cover slot receivers and tight ends as well as defend the run. Werner is taking reps at weak-side linebacker.
“Not very much discussion. Coach told me to play a spot and I’m playing there,” Werner said. “Could change tomorrow. Just free flowing, doing what coach is telling me to do.”
Behind the returning trio are three talented rising juniors with a decent amount of special teams and rotational experience.
Teradja Mitchell, a Virginia native and former top 50 prospect, was the lone inside linebacker of the three out of high school but is now working at weak side, which Mitchell said fits him as a player due to its high activity level.
“It’s just all mental for me,” Mitchell said. “Being able to execute the play every time. We’re at Ohio State. We’ve gotta play at a high level. You’ve gotta execute at a championship level every play.”
Dallas Gant, from Toledo, Ohio, piled up 21 tackles with three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in limited time during 2019.
Then there’s K’Vaughan Pope, who perhaps has shown the most versatility of the bunch with two interceptions this past year.
“You come in with a clear mind, clear heart, clear soul, absorb new information, retain it,” Pope said. “Get better day by day.”
The final fragment in Ohio State’s linebacker collage is redshirt senior Justin Hilliard, a sixth-year player who has overcome multiple season-ending injuries to make a handful of key plays in his career.
“You can learn a lot from a guy like him, the way he goes about his business,” Washington said. “He’s always upbeat, he’s always eager to learn and he’s always a guy that’s the first guy in line for any drill. And very talented.”
Washington said the culture of the program keeps athletes from growing resentful while they wait their turn to see the field. But as a former player, he understands everyone wants to play.
“If we want to win a national championship –– our goal is a championship –– it’s a long year,” Washington said. “You look at last year, I can tell you right now, Tuf Borland, he may have played 40 snaps one game. What that does is, it keeps his level of play higher throughout the year, and that’s something that we’re fortunate to be able to do because of the depth.”