With the departures of Darron Lee and Joshua Perry — two surefire NFL Draft picks — Ohio State has a pair of massive holes to fill at linebacker this season. The Buckeyes don’t seem to be worried much, however, because of the depth they’ve built in the linebacker room and the one linebacker who does return will likely be a first-round NFL Draft pick next season.
Dante Booker, Raekwon McMillan and Chris Worley head out of spring practice as Ohio State’s three starting linebackers. Booker and Worley as the replacements for Lee and Perry; McMillan as the returning man in the middle.
Position coach Luke Fickell feels just fine if he had to trot those three out onto the field for a game tomorrow.
“When you put your head on the pillow and you have got great kids and you know they are going to continue to work, those things that they may be a little shy in, you have got great confidence that the next four months are big for us and in the growth of what we do,” Fickell said this spring. “They have got a sense of they understand and they have a chip on their shoulder, they know what the expectations are and when you have got guys that work like that, it makes you sleep a little bit easier.”
Booker, a junior, spent the last two seniors as Perry’s backup at the Will linebacker position. Mostly a special-teams contributor during that period, he’ll finally get his shot this year for the Buckeyes as a starting linebacker.
Often described as “a freak” by his predecessor Perry, Booker is eager for the opportunity.
“Seeing where [Perry] is at now and the legacy he left behind, I wouldn’t have a problem doing the same exact thing he did,” Booker said after the spring game.
Worley, a redshirt junior, also spent the last two seasons sitting behind a star in Lee, who just so happened to be younger. It was a bit odd, and at times frustrating, for the Cleveland native, but Worley will finally get his chance this fall knowing full well there can’t be a drop-off from Lee’s production the last two seasons.
“He’s a projected first-round pick,” Worley said of Lee earlier this spring. “If you go to any big university like this, you get a chance to play and if you’re not shooting to be a first-round draft pick you’re probably in the wrong place, honestly.
“That’s the goal.”
McMillan, the lone returning starter, is coming off a season which he led the Buckeyes with 119 tackles. The expectation level for the junior linebacker is that he will be an All-American candidate this fall.
That Ohio State’s starting linebackers are all but set in stone coming out of spring is a bit surprising as many pegged there to be a steady competition between Worley and sophomore Jerome Baker for the right to replace Lee. Baker will undoubtedly play this fall, but heading out of spring Worley has a firm grip on the spot and it is his to lose.
Baker flashed his potential during the spring game with a ridiculous one-handed interception of Joe Burrow, but Ohio State fans didn’t get to see a ton of the other young linebackers. Early enrollee Tuf Borland played and made a few plays during the spring game, but redshirt freshmen Nick Conner and Justin Hilliard both were held out or limited all spring due to injury. Conner suffered a torn ACL last season while Hilliard injured his bicep during bowl practice.
Summer will be crucial for those other guys as the Buckeyes will need to continue to rebuild the depth they had in the linebacker room one season ago.
“We have got the making of a two-deep for sure,” Fickell said. “The thing about us is we missed a few guys in spring ball, so guys with injuries and things like that. You have an idea, but it is not set in stone because you want to create that competition and the things that we do best.”
Competition, Fickell says, is why he and many others believe Ohio State won’t experience a drop-off at linebacker this season despite the massive losses of both Perry and Lee. Worley and Booker are more than ready.
“If you ask why we have had so much success at linebacker I would like to tell you that it is because of coaching,” he said, “but the reality is because of competition.”