With the hype surrounding the defensive line, the position battles raging in the secondary and the criticism across the entire offense, Ohio State's linebackers might be the most overlooked unit on the team.
Relative to the other units, there hasn't been much intrigue around the linebackers room this offseason. The group lost its star and leader when Raekwon McMillan declared for the draft, but that void has been filled since the very beginning of spring.
Chris Worley slid into McMillan's middle linebacker spot while Dante Booker joined Jerome Baker on the outside, retaking a starting spot he earned last offseason before a game-one injury forced him to miss the entire 2016 season.
"It's exciting to play behind those guys. All their hype, it's better for all of us."– Jerome Baker on the Defensive Line
It's a stout, experienced unit that performed well last year and essentially returns three starters, but there's little-to-no hype surrounding them. They're overshadowed by arguably the best defensive line in the country, a secondary that's seen five players drafted in the first round in the past four years, and a new-look offense looking to improve from last season.
That doesn't bother Booker. He's happy to simply go about his business behind the loaded, hyped-up defensive line.
"I feel like the linebacker corps, we've always kinda been like, consistent," Booker said. "We are always like one of the units that go hard. We set the tone. But it's exciting to play behind those guys. All their hype – it's better for all of us."
But really, the linebackers probably deserve that hype, too.
Worley is the most experienced member of the team with arguably the highest football IQ on the roster. When he came to Ohio State, Worley wasn't sure which position he would be playing, so he worked with both the safeties and he linebackers, learning both positions.
"I had to learn basically the whole defense because I didn’t know where I was going to play," Worley said in the spring. "It’s a lot easier now to understand the concepts of the defense because I can understand the concepts of the defense from a safety position and also a linebacker. And if you’re a linebacker, you have to know the front, so I know the whole defense."
Joining him is Baker, who might be the most athletic player on the roster. The junior has the body of a linebacker and the speed of a defensive back, running a 4.37 second 40-yard dash, according to the board in the team room.
And he's got hands (even if he only needs one):
Then there's Booker, who beat out that freak athlete before the season last year. That's telling in itself, even though we've never really seen him play up to his potential. Linebackers coach Bill Davis says he possesses a rare combination of size and speed.
"He’s a big, explosive athlete," Davis said. "And he’s out in space, so if you want to roll over and put a receiver on him, he can run. Good enough to cover. Or if you want to try to block him with a receiver, it’s a long day for the perimeter run game, because Dante’s such a big guy."
While both Davis and Booker admitted he's not quite as fast as Baker, if he's anywhere close, that's going to be impressive to watch.
And then you have all the guys behind them. Davis said they're three deep at every linebacker position, and he has so much confidence in the backups he wants to rotate linebackers as much as possible.
"That’s the way to go," Davis said. "Every time you can do a rotation, you want to. It helps the guys when they’re out there on the field play better. Nobody gets over-tired, over-worked. You get packages. We’ve got all kind of ways to get good athletes on the field."
The talent level of the linebackers may not be quite as absurd as that of the defensive line, but when you're looking for strengths on this Ohio State team, it would be best not to overlook these linebackers.
If you do, the next thing you see might be Jerome Baker in the end zone.