A new position coach and a huge void in the middle.
That's what Ohio State's linebackers faced this spring as Luke Fickell departed to become the head coach at Cincinnati and Raekwon McMillan left early for the NFL. Those were two rather large holes in the Buckeyes' defense.
But after 14 practices and a spring game, Ohio State feels pretty good about how it replaced those who left.
Bill Davis was hired in December after spending last season in an analyst role for the Buckeyes. Prior to that, however, he coached for 20-plus years in the NFL as both a linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. He and Urban Meyer go way back — Davis was the best man at Meyer's wedding — so it made perfect sense Meyer opted to hire Davis when the position became open.
By all accounts, his first spring coaching at the collegiate level went smoothly.
That was aided by the fact Davis had a fifth-year senior replace the departed McMillan at middle linebacker. Chris Worley, who started at the SAM position last season for Ohio State, slid inside and will be the Buckeyes' man in the middle in 2017.
“I think he did a great job," Davis said of Worley. "What you really need is, that’s our quarterback on defense. Chris is a great leader, he’s vocal, very intelligent, he’s got great football IQ. So, he went in there and did a great job."
The other two linebackers who will flank Worley this fall are Jerome Baker and Dante Booker. Baker is one of seven returning starters from last season's defense; Booker was slated to start last year before suffering an injury in the season-opener that caused him to lose his spot to Baker.
Now, both will start alongside Worley this fall — Baker at WILL and Booker at SAM. Davis said the two spots are interchangeable, but for all of spring ball, that is where Baker and Booker practiced.
"The SAM and WILL are interchangeable. There is just a different world you live in when you are to the field or when you are in the boundary or when you are weak or strong," Davis said. "The MIKE is a different animal, but we have got a very teachable system. I could take, say, Jerome Baker from the WILL backer spot and make him a MIKE and it wouldn't be too big of a stretch."
A pair of injuries hindered Ohio State's ability to build depth beyond its three projected starters this spring. Former five-star prospect and early enrollee Baron Browning along with sophomore Malik Harrison each suffered shoulder injuries that caused them to both be shut down for spring. Davis said both are expected to be fully recovered by the time training camp rolls around, however.
One player who saw his stock rise a bit this spring was redshirt sophomore Justin Hilliard, who is finally healthy after biceps injuries each of his first two seasons. Coming out of spring, Hilliard seems to be Ohio State's fourth linebacker and spent the majority of his time as the backup MIKE, but seems to have a skill set suitable for all three positions.
Keandre Jones, Tuf Borland and Nick Conner are the other scholarship linebackers on the roster. Jones and Borland got plenty of reps with the second team while Conner battled a knee injury once again this spring.
So while Davis' meeting room was a bit thin this spring due to multiple injuries, everybody is expected to be full-go by fall camp and it will quickly become flooded with talent.
That's not a bad situation at all for a new coach.
"There’s so much competition left and there’s some good linebackers here," Davis said. "They really are competing hard. ... I’ve told them, ‘The best three or four are going to play and we’ll find roles for you. Your job is to get as good as you can get and be a valuable asset to this team and we’ll figure out how to get you on the field.’”